And Now Presenting … THE … A Function Word Takes the Stage

I came across this article today and the title drew me in:  “Is this the most powerful word in the English language?

When I realized the article was focused on the word ‘the’, I smiled.  Putting aside whether or not it is in fact the most powerful word,  we can all agree that it is certainly common.  While it is not difficult to write a single sentence without this word in it, you’re not likely to find an entire paragraph without its use.  In this article the author makes a great point, “While primary school children are taught to use ‘wow’ words, choosing ‘exclaimed’ rather than ‘said’, he doesn’t think any word has more or less ‘wow’ factor than any other; it all depends on how it’s used.”  The ‘he’ referred to in this quote is Michael Rosen, poet and author.

I’m sharing this particular quote because I couldn’t agree more.  While it feels right to bring to a student’s attention words like benevolent, pterodactyl, photographic, and emancipation, it is also right to bring to their attention words they already know how to spell, pronounce, and use.  But that is less likely, isn’t it?  There seems to be this driving task behind the teaching of reading: Teach all the words.  Once the child “knows” a word, move on to the next. And how do we as teachers quickly judge whether a child “knows” a word or not?  Speaking for myself, I used to question words that they couldn’t pronounce far more often than a word they could pronounce.  I figured that if they couldn’t pronounce it, perhaps they were unfamiliar with it and then also didn’t know its meaning.  And that might well be the case in many situations.  It didn’t mean I shouldn’t question the words they pronounced smoothly, but since students at a fifth grade level can pronounce so many words, it is difficult to wonder which of those they don’t know the meaning of.  (This is one of my personal struggles with frequent fluency tests and phonics teaching outside of the context of a word.  I see where being fluent is needed, but because it is easy to test, we tend to do it a lot.  And that sends the message to the students that speed is a sign of a great reader which we all know is not necessarily true.)  When you pair fluency up with pronunciation before the sense and meaning of the word has been established and understood, we end up with students who read well, but comprehend poorly.  My concern is that we pass along another unintended message about what is important to our students.

It’s probably impossible to rid oneself completely of teaching things you don’t intend.  But if you are constantly aware of what you are teaching and the manner in which you are doing it, if you are constantly reflecting on whether or not that manner is the most effective way, and if you are constantly comparing what the students understand to what you intended them to understand, you stand a better chance of recognizing those unintended messages and doing something about them.  It is another reason I wish we could do away with one-size-fits-all reading/writing/vocabulary programs and instead teach our educators how the English language works.  When a teacher comes to rely on a manual for “right and wrong,” too many stop seeking answers to questions that come up.  The assumption is that if there were answers, they would be in the teacher manual.  But they aren’t.  Imagine having Structured Word Inquiry as a college requirement!  We could then give students the opportunity to address the questions they have about English spelling, and teach them how to go about investigating their questions.

What specifically do most educators teach a child about a specific word?  Well, I think it depends on the word.  With the words ‘benevolent’, ‘pterodactyl’, ‘photographic’, and ’emancipation’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and meaning, either generally speaking or in the context of where the word was noticed.  With the words ‘the’, ‘because’, ‘of’, and ‘their’, most would teach pronunciation, spelling, and point out their use in sentences (teaching meaning is not as clear-cut with function words).

The above paragraph describes teachers who are given a program to use and decide what is important for students to know about a word based on what they remember about their own learning of spelling. Teachers who incorporate the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry into their word study also bring in awareness of morphology and etymology to explain a word’s story and spelling.  I’m not being judgy here, I just know how ill equipped I was before I found SWI.  I believed I was giving them everything they needed.  Wait.  That’s not true.  I knew I wasn’t helping them understand a word’s spelling, but I didn’t know how to fix that.  I didn’t know where to learn more. When you’re handed a teacher manual, you assume it has everything you need to teach, explain, and understand spelling.  Hardly.

Function and Content/Lexical Words
The list of shorter words I’ve mentioned are called function words.  Few students are taught about function words and lexical/content words.  The more you know about why words are categorized this way, the more sense it makes to share that information with children.  The following video gives you some basic information about these two categories.  I would add that some words (adverbs for example) are less accurately placed specifically in one of these categories and more accurately placed on a spectrum that lists content words at one end and function words at the other.  In other words, depending on context, a word might be functioning more as a content word or more as a function word.   The other great point this video makes is that we reduce the stress on function words far more often than we reduce the stress on content words in speech.  Explaining that to children would help them understand why they misspell those words when writing down sentences instead of words in isolation.  It isn’t that the word is difficult, it’s what happens to the word when we speak as we do in our stress-timed language.

Another recognizable quality of content or lexical words is that they have at least three letters.  That helps you understand the difference between ‘in’ (in the box) and ‘inn’ (a place to stay for the night).  Think of the words ‘be’ and ‘bee.’  Which is easier to define in isolation?  I bet you’ve answered ‘bee.’  That’s because it’s a content or lexical word.  The function word ‘be’ is more difficult to define on its own because we don’t use it that way (on its own).  It has a function in the sentence.  Like the analogy the man used in the video, the function words kind of  “hold up” the content words.  In the sentence, “It’s going to be raining soon,” the word ‘be’ is reduced and is definitely “supporting” the content word ‘raining.’  If you can’t hear yourself put more stress (emphasis) on ‘raining’ than you do on ‘be,’ write down the sentence and ask someone else to read it.  It might be easier to spot that way.  Of course the fun of speaking a stress timed language is that you can move the stress in the sentence to emphasize different words and change the meaning of the sentence.  That sentence could also have the stress on ‘soon’ (but it still wouldn’t be on ‘be.’

Every year, once my students have become familiar with using the Four Questions of Structured Word Inquiry, I ask them to choose any word to investigate.  I’ve had students who chose a favorite food (bacon, cheese), a favorite animal (hippopotamus, octopus), a favorite object (amethyst, tractor), a random word from a book they were reading (perfidiousness, mission), and even their own name (Sawyer, Jade).  But not until this year did I have a student who chose a function word!  And guess which one he chose … you guessed it!  The.

He was so surprised that there was this much information about such a short word!   He and I discussed the Old English letter thorn (þ) that he saw in the Old English spellings in the entry at Etymonline. The chart in the entry is something this student recreated in his poster.  He was a bit familiar with the earlier spellings of se (masculine), seo (feminine), þæt (neutral), and þa (plural) because we had watched the following video in which we learned the Old English names for common animals.

The first thing the author of this video does is explain why we will see different spellings for the early Old English spelling of ‘the.’  Here is a screen shot of that information as the author lays it out:

The spelling of <þe> replaced these forms in late Old English (after c.950).  Old English had ten different words for ‘the’, but since there was no distinction between ‘the’ and ‘that’, both senses were embedded in those ten.

Reading further at Etymonline,  I found out that ‘she’ probably evolved from the feminine form of ‘the’,  sēo.  The Old English word for ‘she’ was heo or hio, but there was a convergence of ‘he‘ and ‘heo‘ in pronunciation, and by 1530 ‘she’ and ‘he’ were separate words.  We still see the original <h> in the word ‘her.’  (As I was checking out other resources for this post, I saw at the Oxford English Dictionary that there is another theory about how ‘she’ got its spelling.  Check it out if you are able.)

Looking back at the boy’s poster, it is interesting to see the consistent <the> spelling of each related word with the exception of ‘thilk.’  This word is interesting because it was a contraction of the words ‘the’ and ‘same.’  So it was þe “the” plus ilce “same.”  Several resources I looked at listed this word as archaic, so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary.  It was first attested in 1225 and the most recent example they had of this word in use was in 1909. It had a sense of “this same one” or “the same.” I also googled the word to see if it would come up in any modern context.  No such luck.  In fact, Google assumed I was spelling the word incorrectly.  That was more evidence that this word is not used much any more.

Because we study grammar in my classroom, the student knew that ‘the’ is an article, a definite article determiner.  That definiteness is important in the comprehension of a thought.  For instance, if I say, “Sing me the song,”  you and I both know what song I am referring to.  There is a definite song I want you to sing.  If instead, I said, “Sing me a song,” I would be using the indefinite article ‘a’ and neither of us would have a specific song in mind.  In fact, you might ask me what I’d like you to sing!

Last fall my students each wrote a sentence so we could investigate and identify the origin language of each word.  We were trying to see if there was one ancestor more common to most of the words we use day to day.  It was the second year I lead the students in this activity.  If you are interested, you can read the blog post about it from  January 2019:  “History Is Who We Are And Why We Are The Way We Are”  — David McCullough    An interesting side piece of data that we collected showed how often we used certain words in common speech.  The students wrote 49 sentences, and then we tallied how often we saw each word in those sentences.  Here are the results for the most commonly used words:

https://mbsteven.edublogs.org/files/2019/01/fullsizeoutput_1c18-1iq34if-2hfpw3z.jpeg

As you can see, ‘the’ was used 22 times!  And of the 16 words that were used more than once, 11 were function words.  I didn’t count ‘like’ as a function word, but depending on its use, it certainly could be.  Remember when I said earlier that function and content words work better on a continuum than on distinct lists?  The word ‘like’ illustrates that beautifully.  Depending on its use, it can be a preposition, conjunction, noun, adjective, or an adverb.  If it is used as a preposition or conjunction, it will be placed on the function word side.  If it is used as a noun or adjective, it will be placed on the content word side.  Here’s another graph of the function words that are specifically determiners:

What we notice here is that the article determiners were more commonly used than the possessive determiners.  That wasn’t surprising considering what we’ve noticed in our study of grammar.  Article determiners are the most common type of determiners.  In case you are not familiar with determiners, they announce nouns.  They are generally found in front of the noun they are announcing, but not necessarily immediately in front of the noun.  In the case of “my shoe,” the possessive determiner is ‘my,’ and is immediately in front of the noun it is modifying.    In the case of “every small chance,” the quantifier determiner is ‘every.’  It determines or announces the noun ‘chance’ and is in front of the adjective that also modifies the noun ‘chance.’

I think the importance of this data collection was the recognition that function words are indeed the foundation in our sentences.  They are there to point our attention to the content words.   The other fascinating thing was what the students noticed about the spelling of the function words.  Words like ‘in’, ‘to’, ‘we’, and ‘an’ have had the same spelling since they were used in Old English.  In looking at so many other words whose spelling changed over the years, it was weird at first to see this.  But then we realized that function words are used constantly and because of that, their spelling didn’t change like that of other words that were used less frequently!  An analogy might be, “If you never get off the train, you never get the opportunity to grab a different jacket!”

I encourage you to read the article that inspired this blog post.  There were other senses of ‘the’ discussed, and they were rather well explained.  It certainly broadens one’s thinking about a word we’ve all known since we were perhaps three years old, and yet haven’t paid much attention to!  Once the reading and spelling of the word was established, attention moved on to other words.  Perhaps it’s time to take a second look at some of our function words and recognize their place in our lexicon, in our sentences, and what happens to them in normal speech.  It’s certainly an important aspect of spelling that was missing from my own education (and perhaps yours too?) and also from any teaching manual out there.  Let’s make sure our students have the advantage of this understanding!

If you are interested in hearing more about stress and how it affects function words in speech, I recommend videos by Rachel’s English.  Here is one that I have found extremely helpful.  This whole idea provides further proof that our language is a stress-timed language and NOT a syllable-timed language.  What that means exactly is another understanding that isn’t found in teaching manuals.  We spend so-o-o much time teaching children about syllables when our language isn’t syllable-timed.  We spend almost no time teaching children about stress even though our language is stress-timed.  We need to stop relying on those programs and those manuals, and start learning about our language for ourselves!

Rally the Allies!

There was quite a hub-bub about the campaign rally scheduled recently in Oklahoma.  Several current medical and social issues caused this rally to be questioned more than most political rallies in our past.  And of course, the whole event got me thinking about the word ‘rally.’  A political rally is nothing new in this country.  I believe the first political rally was held by George Washington when he was running for his second term!  Prior to his political campaign and the rallies that took place to support that, he often had a need for rallies of a slightly different type.  Accounts of the battles indicate that there were many times during the American Revolution when the soldiers needed to hear words of encouragement from their leader.  They needed to be brought back together and reminded of what was at stake in that war.  They needed a pep talk of sorts.  Other times during the conflict, they needed to be rallied (brought back together) so that they were ready for the next advance.


Washington inspecting the colors after The Battle of Trenton by Edward Percy
Moran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of pulling a group of people together to encourage them to think in a certain way was what the word ‘rally’ meant then, and it is what the word means now!  You may be familiar with the phrase “Rally ‘Round The Flag.”  That is a line from the Civil War era song, “Battle Cry of Freedom.”  Here is a link to the story of this song.  It was written days before it was played on July 24, 1862 at a huge war rally held by Abraham Lincoln, who was trying to recruit as many as 300,000 volunteers to fight for the Union.  This article includes the words to the song and a version of the song.

Civil War Music:  The Battle Cry of Freedom

Civil War Posters

Of course there are rallies that are not political in their intent.  Most everyone who has attended a secondary school with a sports team has attended a pep rally!  They are especially commonplace in the U.S.  I’m not sure about other countries.  The goal of a pep rally is to stir up some school spirit!  There is music by the school’s pep band, there is chanting by the school’s cheerleaders, and there is lots of encouragement offered to the members of the particular sporting team being featured.

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CC BY-SA 3.0  Pepassemblyatschool.jpg by Jesrapo

What else is there to know about this word?

At Etymonline we see that this word was used as a verb (1600) before it was used as a noun (1650).  The verb meant “bring together.”  Before that it was from French rallier, and before that from Old French ralier “assemble, unite again.”  As you can see the original sense and meaning of this word persists today!  Looking closer at the etymology of this word, we see <re-> “again” and alier “unite.”  At this point in the Etymonline entry we are directed to the related word ‘ally.’  That word is first attested in the late 13c.  Notice that it is older by 300 years!  At that time it meant “to join in marriage.”  Further back it was from Old French alier “combine, unite.”  Notice the spelling difference between Old French ralier and Old French alier!  The only difference is the <r> which represents the <re-> prefix “again.”

Before I go further, I just want to mention how much I love the fact that ‘rally’ and ‘ally’ have a common ancestor!  Think about the word ‘ally’ for a minute.  We think of our allies as those who join us and work with us for the mutual benefit of both.  According to Etymonline, ‘ally’ has had a sense of “form an alliance, join, associate” since the late 14th century.  We saw certain nations become allies in both World War I against the Central Powers and then against Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II.  It is not a stretch to think that once you form an alliance with someone or some group, the two people or groups are now allies.  And who better to rally with than your allies!

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several variations of this first sense of this word.  The first is “a rapid reassembling of forces for renewed effort or fighting.”  That is certainly the same sense we see in accounts of war.  While reading an account of the Battle of Trenton (American Revolution) at the History Channel site, I came across the following use of this word:

“Rall attempted to rally his troops but was never able to establish a defensive perimeter, and was shot from his horse and fatally wounded.”

A second variation is that of a “signal for rallying.”  In order for the soldiers to know they are to rally, there must be some kind of signal.  A commander might tell someone to sound the rally!  It was no doubt a specific bugle or drum signal.

A third variation would be “a meeting of the supporters of a cause to demonstrate the strength of public feeling or to inspire or foster enthusiasm.”  My New Oxford American Dictionary describes this sense as “assemble in a mass meeting.”  I would venture to say that people the world over have seen or participated in such mass meetings in the last year.  Recently there have been (and continue to be) protests/rallies for causes like Black Lives Matter. Earlier this year there were protests or rallies for Climate Change as well.  I imagine you could name several rallies that you’ve seen in the news with other particular focuses.  I remember participating in a rally myself back in 2011!

A fourth variation would be in the context of boxing.  The word would be used to mean “a sustained exchange of blows.”  I went to Google to find ‘rally’ used in this way in a recent headline or story.  I found, “Boxers Rally to Defeat Willamette” from September, 2018.  But on closer examination, this story is about a volleyball team who rallied (to come together to restore spirits and enthusiasm).  As you no doubt noticed, instead of finding this word used with this sense as a noun, I found it with another sense as a verb.  The next headline I found was, “Boxers Rally for Win in Home Opener.”  Again, this had nothing to do with boxing.  It was about baseball which you may have guessed from the phrase ‘home opener.’  The third headline I found was actually about boxing!  “Boxing World Rallies Against Devin Haney for …”  In this story, one boxer had made a blatantly racist remark against another and a large number of boxing enthusiasts rallied (came together to send a solid message).  So I was unlucky in finding an example of this word used in this sense as a noun at all.  I wonder if it is because there is a more commonly used word for this particular sense.  I’m thinking of the word ‘volley.’  I could easily find reference to a boxer receiving “a volley of well-placed blows.”

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0325-010, Michael Gusnick, Torsten Schmitz.jpg

Michael Gusnick, Torsten Schmitz by Thomas Lehmann
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-0325-010 / Lehmann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0 /
CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

A fifth variation would be “a concerted effort by a team, player, or competitor, especially one made from a losing position to draw even or take the lead.”  This sense applies to the sporting headlines I found in the previous paragraph!  Many times a team or player rallies with the hopes of  coming from behind to win.  At the site The Bleacher Report, I found this list:  The 20 Most Outstanding Sports Team Rally Songs.     One of my favorites off that list is “New York, New York” which is a rally song for the New York Yankees.  Do you know it?  It became popularized by Frank Sinatra.

Now an obviously different sense of ‘rally’ has to do with car racing.  A rally is “a race for motor vehicles, usually over a long distance on public roads or rough terrain and typically divided into several divisions.”  The Sports Car Club of America describes a RoadRally this way: “Because events do not involve speed, teams do not need specialized equipment for their car. Although there are classes for vehicles with RoadRally-specific equipment on them, often teams will do the events with only pens, paper and a wristwatch. On the rare occasion the RoadRally is held at night, a small flashlight might be needed. Entry fees for the events are typically less than $40, and often events will even have classes for RoadRally novices.”


By oisa – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oisa/763487574/, CC BY 2.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2684357
Gumball Rally Start London 2007.jpg
London Maximillion Jaguar XJ220 leaving the start in London in 2007

In referring to a rally, but wanting to switch the word to a verb, one could say, “The driver rallied his car in Italy.”

There are just so many interesting words within our reach every single day.  Even when you think you understand a word, there is always something new to discover.  There is always a deeper understanding to gift to yourself!  I also find that with every investigation I conduct on my own, I become more and more familiar with my resources and what the internet can make available to me.  I prefer to use more than one resource simply because each is written by a different person, and in doing their own digging for the information, may have come across different resources themselves.  More information is always clarifying!  When there are discrepancies, it just means I need to look further and think about what information I need to know in order to reconcile the discrepancies I see.  Sometimes the discrepancy is simply my misunderstanding of linguistics and language.  So I ask questions of knowledgeable people and I reread trusted sources.

Don’t forget to conduct your own investigations.  The more often you do it, the better equipped you are to teach others how to go about an investigation.  I have found that the more discoveries I have made for myself, the less I want to “make things easy” for my students.  If I enjoy the moments of discovery this much, why would I rob my students of the same joy?  I guide them, I lead them, I help them understand the signposts along the way, but I let them see it for themselves!  And everyday we rally around words!

 

“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!

 

Assimilated Prefixes – learning to see what it is you are looking at

When school was abruptly closed this year, we were in the middle of many great projects.  The biggest of those focused on assimilated prefixes.  The students had spent time either individually or in small groups looking at a particular prefix and its assimilated forms.  What ended up being a good thing is that not everybody started this project at the same time.  It was one of those classroom situations that happens when certain students finish what they are working on sooner than other students and ask about something new to do.  The first few students ended up working alone.  I had them take a look at a specific assimilated prefix.

For instance, I assigned the first student looking for something new to do the prefix <ad->.  I asked him to find words that clearly had an <ad-> prefix.  That meant that he couldn’t just go to word searcher or a dictionary and write down words that begin “ad…”  He had to check their etymology to make sure they had the <ad-> prefix joined to a base.  When he brought a list to my desk, I asked him what sense the prefix often brought to the words he had listed.  We looked over the list together and talked about what the words meant.

This step is important to me.  If you look at the student posters below, you will notice that the students tend to add words to their list that are not words that a fifth grade student might typically use. It is as if they open the dictionary and copy the first bunch of words they see, not even entertaining the thought that there might be words that fit the search that they already know.  Of course I encourage them to first look for words they know, but looking at words without considering what the word means is something that they’ve been doing a lot of prior to fifth grade.  It’s a habit, unfortunately.  So I counter that habit with continually asking what the words they choose mean.  Then when these posters are presented to the class, we go over the unfamiliar words again.  Having said that, I have no intention of testing them on any of these words.  I am well aware that in a week they may not remember what some of these words mean, and that’s okay.  They will remember some of them and really, the point here is to notice and become familiar with the prefix.  When they see a word in the future that begins with an “ad…” I want them to be able to consider if that is a prefix in that word or not.  If they think it is, based on what else they recognize in the spelling, then they will know that it brings a sense of “to” to the base.  It is a valuable consideration when thinking about a  word sum hypothesis.

Besides possibly noticing this prefix on some word in their future, there is another underlying foundational concept that we are reinforcing when we talk about what the words we are collecting mean in relation to the base and in relation to the prefix.  That underlying concept is the fact that words that share bases or share affixes, also share something in their sense and meaning.  When the students really understand that, they will begin to look for that shared sense or that shared meaning.  The fact that students have not been taught that words like design and signature share a base and therefore a meaning is such a lost opportunity!  They don’t expect two words to be related or connected in meaning unless they are exactly the same, except for maybe a switch-out of suffixes.  So, for instance, a student would expect signature and signatures to be connected in meaning, but not signature and signal.

After the student had collected words with an <ad-> prefix, he asked what to do next.  So I told him that the <ad-> prefix has some assimilated forms.  I told him that sometimes the <ad-> form doesn’t work so well as it gets paired up with certain bases.  As an example, we looked at the word “assign.”  The prefix on this word is an assimilated form of <ad->.  It is <as->.  It’s really the same prefix as <ad-> and brings the same sense of “to” to the denotation of the base.  He looked puzzled, so I asked the question for him, “Why don’t we just use <ad->?”  Well, look what happens when we try.  Pronounce the base with an <ad-> prefix instead of the <as-> form.  We both said *adsign.  Then we kept repeating it until we could feel the /d/ assimilating to an /s/.  I explained that what happened was that the /d/ assimilated to better match the articulation of the /s/ which is the next element in the word.  Then I wrote out the word “assimilate” for him.  I said, “Guess what the prefix is in this word?”  He guessed the <as>.  “Right.  It is an assimilated form of <ad>!  Do you recognize a familiar suffix at the other end of this word?”  He recognized <ate>.  That left <simil>.  I told him the denotation of this base is  “resembling, of the same kind, to make similar.”  So what is happening here is that the /d/ in the prefix is assimilating to be more similar to the initial pronunciation in the next element.  In this word, it assimilates to /s/!  It was time to send him on his way to find words with an <as> prefix that had assimilated from an <ad> prefix.  I asked him to grab one of the Collins Gage Canadian Dictionaries off our shelf.  I wanted to show him exactly what he would be looking for in order to know if the initial <as> in any word he found was actually an assimilated form of the <ad> prefix.

I had him look for the word “assign” since we had just talked about it.  The very last line of this entry had the information were looking for, Latin <ad-> “to, for.”  That is the evidence I want all the students to look for when they find a word and are looking to see if it has an assimilated prefix.  In this case, <ad-> is what I like to frame as “the head of this prefix family” or the default form of this prefix.

So now this same student was off to collect words with an <as-> prefix.  Each time he came back, we looked over his list and I gave him another assimilated form for <ad->.  He was quite surprised at how many there were!

The same conversation took place with other students in the other classes.  Eventually I had all students looking at  either <sub->, <con->, <ex->, <ad->, <in-> “not, without”, <in-> “in”, or <ob-> and the assimilated forms for each.  Once their initial task of collecting some words with each of the assimilated forms of a specific prefix was completed, then I talked once more with them about this idea of assimilation.  I wanted to make sure they understood how recognizing an assimilated prefix would be helpful to them.  I also wanted them to have a sense that when an assimilated prefix is used, there is often the appearance of a doubled consonant near the beginning of the word.  When they notice that, they will want to see if what they are really looking as is an assimilated prefix (one that has adjusted to match the beginning of the base).  Next they made a poster of their findings.  These were shared with the rest of the class so that students would be aware of prefix families other than the one they investigated.  After the presentations and discussions, the posters went out into the hall.  Here are a few of the posters.

 

When you look at these posters, you’ll notice the one main prefix with all of its assimilated forms.  You may also be wondering again what makes these assimilated.  You heard an explanation with the <ad-> prefix, but here’s a similar explanation using the <sub-> prefix.

Assimilation is what happens when the articulation of a sound is modified to better match the articulation of an adjacent sound.  Assimilation can happen in other situations as well, but for now I am focusing on prefixes and bases.  When looking at prefixes, I’m focused on the neighboring elements and what has happened over time as they were articulated.  For example, let’s look at the word “supply.”  If you look in an etymological resource such as Etymonline, you will notice that <sup-> is an assimilated form of <sub-> “up from below”.  The base is <ply> and is from Latin plere “to fill”.  The word “supply” means  “fill up.”  If I supply pencils, I fill up that need.  But why did the prefix assimilate to <sup->?  Why isn’t it <sub->?  Well, let’s just pair up <sub-> and <ply>.  Our word would be *subply.  Now say that word several times in a row.  What did you notice?  Did you start out saying *subply and ending up saying supply?  Of course you did.  That is assimilation in action!  The /b/ assimilated to a /p/ to better match the /p/ in the base <ply>.

Now because these investigations weren’t all started at the same time, they didn’t get finished at the same time.  Truth be told, I like it that way.  We present posters and discuss as they are finished.  We rarely have a stockpile of posters to present at any one time.  I don’t like to rush these presentations because I want the sharing and discussing to feel leisurely.  Thinking about what you are seeing and being told deserves time for contemplation.  For many it is the think time that allows pieces of understanding to fall into place.

The boy who was first started on this project was one of the first to finish.  He took his time and was impressed with what he found.  Look at how many assimilated forms of <ad-> he found!

After he had shared with the class, he was back at my desk.  “What should I do now?”

I replied, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a game show and while people are participating, they are learning about assimilated prefixes?”

He glanced at me with a not-so-sure look.  I reminded him of the video some fifth graders made a few years ago called Assimilated Prefix Family Feud!  (You can find it HERE if you are curious.)  I told him (and every other student/group who began to find themselves at my desk wondering where to go from here) to give this idea some thought.  I asked them to think of games that they have played or game shows that they have watched that they could turn into a teaching opportunity.  As you might guess, a few knew exactly what they wanted to do and others spent a day or two playing with ideas in their minds.

Once they had decided, I asked them to write a script.  What a perfect opportunity to blend writing skills and orthography knowledge!  At first they didn’t really get it.  They thought they would set up a game show, I would set up the camera, and then we would see what happens.  I had to explain to them that only the audience would think that this was happening live.  The host, the participants, the studio audience, and the camera person (me) would know it was a script we were all following.  It had to be.  Otherwise, how could we be sure we would be including enough information to teach the audience about assimilated prefixes.  We had to blend the humor and entertainment with solid information and teaching about assimilated prefixes.  They were excited and couldn’t wait to get to the writing.  Here is the first game show that was ready to be videotaped.  It is the one about the <ad-> prefix.

The host is the student who wrote the script.  When he first turned it in to me for revising, I suggested he give more than one example for each of the assimilated forms he chose to include.  By doing that, he illustrated over and over what this process of assimilation with prefixes is!  As I was filming, I couldn’t stop smiling.  The atmosphere was one of my favorites.  There was laughing; there was learning.  There was camaraderie, helpfulness, and fairness.  The learning will be memorable; I have no doubt!

The next script to be ready featured the assimilated prefix <sub->.  Again this was written by a single student.  She was so excited to model her game show after The Bachelorette!  I asked her what she had in mind.  When she said that each assimilated form of the prefix <sub-> would be hoping to find its perfect match, I chuckled.   I couldn’t wait to see how she pulled this one off!

Here is her poster.

And here is The Bachelorette – The Assimilated Prefix version.

The scriptwriter is the one handing out the roses.  The students had so much fun with this one.  The outtakes were hilarious!  This is one of those topics (love) that both intrigues ten and eleven year olds and embarrasses them all at the same time.  A great combination of learning about the <sub-> prefix family and laughing!

The next show ready for the big screen was called What’s My Prefix?  This focused on the <con-> prefix and its assimilated forms.  Here is the poster this group created.

Here is their game show.  It was interesting that this group chose to list the prefix choices on the board, and then to plant some incorrect prefixes in that list.  They wanted the contestant to think about the spelling of the whole word. The host spelled out the base and then the contestants thought about what word they could form and which assimilated form of <con-> would be appropiate.  The rest of the class enjoyed being our studio audience!

When the host offers up the base <rode> with a denotation of <gnaw>, each of the contestants takes a guess.  One guesses <co->, the next guesses *<corr>, and the third one guesses <cor->.  If you were to show this to students, a great follow up discussion might include why the structure of “corrode” makes sense if we identify an <cor-> prefix.  Another follow up question might be, “Why isn’t <con-> used?”  Using this same example, a third point to bring up could be the role of this <cor-> assimilated form of <con->.  We usually think of this prefix as having a sense of “with,” but in the word “corrode,” this prefix is actually an intensifier.  It is intensifying the action of the base.  When something corrodes, it is intensely gnawing or wearing away.  The students knew of this prefix function in this word by carefully reading the entry for this word at Etymonline.

The next group ready to film had an interesting take on the game show format.  They took the family feud idea and wanted two assimilated prefix families to “duke it out”.  So two groups combined and wrote a script in which the <ob-> assimilated prefix family competed against the <sub-> assimilated prefix family.  They called it Family Fortune!  Here is the <ob-> poster showing what they had to pull from as they wrote their script.  I did not get a picture of their <sub-> poster.

What I especially loved about this game show is that they found bases that could take either an <sub-> prefix or <ob-> prefix.  At first they thought this would be an easy script to write.  But they soon realized it would be tough to find bases that would work for both prefix families.  I loved watching their persistence in looking!

As the show started, the hosts named a base. Then each prefix family decided whether or not they had a member that could indeed pair up with that base!  Cool challenge!

The first base they named was <fer>.  The assimilated prefix <suf-> stepped forward to created the word “suffer.”   At the same time the <suf-> prefix stepped forward, I wondered why the <of-> prefix from the other team didn’t also step forward.  It might have changed the feeling of the game a bit. It would also have highlighted how the sense of each prefix affected the overall sense and meaning of the base!  I hope that as you are watching these videos, that you see ways to strengthen the important information in them.  Use them as discussion starters.  Ask your students to contemplate what my students presented and then think about what else could have been said or added.

The last game show to be filmed was called Flip That Base!  It featured the <con-> assimilated prefix family.  As you watch, you will notice that the scriptwriters included ten stems and asked the contestants to bring up the prefix that matched best.  Once the prefix and base or stem were paired up, the hosts briefly explained why a specific prefix was a good match.  Here is their game show.

The two hosts of this show were the scriptwriters.  They were especially excited when I told them that I had never assigned a project like this before.  I have made a lot of classroom videos, but often I am the scriptwriter.  They loved bringing their creativity, writing skills, and orthographical knowledge to the big screen.  I loved watching them enjoy this project so much!

Even though we were far from done with this project, I am happy that at least five of the groups had their work filmed.  All students had an opportunity to see these shows.   And that means that all students got familiar with the idea that the assimilated forms of a prefix assimilated to better match the articulation of the neighboring element in the word.

Prior to fifth grade, students were taught that <con-> and <com-> were prefixes.  They were not, however, taught that they were two forms of the same prefix.  They were also not taught that <con-> had other assimilated forms. The problem with having such a limited understanding of this prefix is that the students don’t even consider that the <col-> in “collapse”  or the <cor-> in “correct” could be a prefix.  Don’t forget this:  To understand a word’s structure is key to understanding its spelling.  If students can learn about <con-> and <com->, they can learn about the rest.  This doesn’t mean memorizing a list and taking a test.  This means encountering words and having someone guide them to this understanding.  The more of it they see, the more of it they will recognize for themselves down the road.  Understanding the structure of a word will help them when reading and when writing.  It is the biggest missing piece in modern reading instruction in my opinion.  Yes, teachers will tell you that they include it.  But what happens when the word has a structure that the teacher doesn’t understand for themself?  They certainly can’t teach what they don’t know they don’t know, now can they?

Back to our big project that was halted mid-stream.

So what great game show ideas did we miss out on once school was cancelled?  Well, my camera has footage of a partial game of PREFIX (a version of BINGO).  Each column had one of the assimilated forms of <ob->.  The hosts read off words and participants marked the squares with that word.  While the participants were marking their boards, the hosts shared more information about the various pairings between the base and the prefix.  We’ll just have to imagine someone shouting out “PREFIX!”

And while I was filming other groups, two boys finished a board game they made.  The goal of the game was to collect one word with each assimilated form of <ex->.  If you followed the path, got to the end of the board, and didn’t have at least one of each, you had to keep going around the board until you had them all.  You had the opportunity to collect and lose cards along the way.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the board game.  Those two boys played it enthusiastically for three days during our video shoots of other scripts!

Here are pictures of the backdrops for two more groups that didn’t get to finish their project.  Creating the backdrop was the last step before filming.  That means their scripts were finished because there had to be a script before any props were to be made (unless there were group members available to do this).  I can only imagine how exciting these shows would have been!  Encouraging the students to unleash their creativity was just what they needed.  This project involved investigation, discussion, writing, revision, reading, memorizing, creative prop making, performance, and learning more than what was expected.  Oh, and there was a huge helping of laughter!

But What About a Scope and Sequence?

When people ask if I use a scope and sequence, my first response is that I don’t.  But that’s not completely true.  I do have a scope in mind.  I do have a list of concepts and skills that I feel are important and that I must teach in a given school year.  It isn’t etched in stone or anything because it depends on my audience, of course.  I start where they are in their understanding of English spelling.  I also have a rough sequence for some of those concepts that I generally follow.  It also isn’t etched in stone or anything.  It is simply an order that I generally follow so I know that I can build on some basic understanding before adding layers of new information.  For example, I don’t teach my students about assimilated prefixes until they have experience with prefixes in general.  I don’t teach about Latin verbs and the resulting bases in modern English until they have an understanding of Latin’s place in the history of our language.  But other than that, the rest of the concepts are applied when the opportunity arises.  And it arises a lot because we look at so many many words in the course of a school year.

I have used a scope and sequence with other programs in the past.  I understand why teachers want them.  There is always the fear that you’ll miss teaching something important or that there will be inconsistency between one teacher and another regarding the skills taught.  As you go along, you can check off that you have covered a certain skill, and by the end of the year, all of your students have heard all of the required information.  But we all know that following a strict scope and sequence doesn’t guarantee anything.  Students can still end up with “gaps” in a specific subject.  Sometimes there isn’t enough practice before the sequence timeline moves on.  I’m not blaming the teacher here.  I’m just saying that students who kinda-almost-get it, don’t always get it solidified before the teacher moves on to the next piece in the scope.  And that is only one example of how a gap can form.

I’m not saying you have to scrap the idea of a scope and sequence.  Many districts require them.  But I want you to think of one in a less restrictive way.  A less regimented way.  If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, I bet you already know where you will start each year with the subjects you teach.  You know what concepts you will start with and what comes next.  It is the same for me.  The difference is that once we get into word investigations, I can’t predict which concepts will need a closer look.  Instead of writing down a specific order in which these concepts must be addressed, I take the opportunity to discuss them as they come up in the context of a word.  In this way, we talk throughout the year about concepts that come up over and over.  Before you know it, some students are able to explain these concepts to other students.  When that happens, I know that the understanding will continue to spread throughout the class.  More and more students will have the opportunity to explain a concept to other students and in doing so, demonstrate that they know it for themselves.

The following is a list of big topics I consider to be “must haves” for my students.  I will not get into all of the particular bits included with each of these larger topics, but I em endeavoring to explain each to give you an idea of what each entails.   I have other posts in this blog that address many of these things.

Words hold meaning.

This is a perfect spot for one of my favorite quotes from Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, “Every word is part of a picture.  Every sentence IS a picture.  All you do, is let your imagination connect them together.”  Yes, every word has a sense and meaning.  And that sense and meaning is embedded in the word.  It isn’t a case of, “Here’s the word. Go look in a dictionary to find out what it means.”  Instead, we learn to spot the bases in a word that carry a common denotation that has existed since the birth of that lexical stem in the English language.  It is a literal meaning of the word, and is comprised of the denotation of the base and the sense that is added to it by any affixes.  Yes, sometimes a word’s sense and meaning changes over time, but there are a surprising number of words that can be clearly understood once one knows the denotation of the base.

Words have structure.

A word’s structure is expressed by writing its word sum.  We begin with a hypothesis.  Familiarity with affixes is a must, but I don’t recommend  memorizing them in isolation.  I find it helpful to look at prefixes and suffixes by having small groups collect words with a specific suffix or prefix.  Then we come together to talk about what these affixes are and how they steer the denotation of the base.  After a day or two of that, I continue those discussions about affixes as they come up in word investigations.  If I see some confusion about the role of affixes, the sense they carry, or what happens when two or more are joined, I will choose a specific word family for examination that will help solidify this familiarity.

About half way through the school year, when I feel that my students are comfortably familiar with several common prefixes, I specifically have everyone learn about assimilated prefixes.  Many students know that <con-> and <com-> are prefixes.  But they don’t know that they are in fact forms of the same prefix.  And they don’t imagine that <col->, <cor->, and <co-> are even prefixes at all!  This is something I have students focus on in small groups.  They collect words that have one or another form of that prefix so we can share and talk as a class.  We all benefit from each group’s research, and they become better equipped to make hypotheses about word sums!

Connecting vowels are something we discuss when they appear.  The first time we spot them, I spend time explaining how I know that the letter in question is, in fact, a connecting vowel.  I demonstrate the questions I ask myself and the resources I use.  I also point out that you can’t tell if a letter is a connecting vowel by just looking at the word.  You can have a suspicion, but it isn’t until we have asked ourselves some questions and used our resources that we can provide evidence to back our suspicion or hypothesis.

This brings us to identifying bases and whether or not a word is a compound.  They know about free bases except they call them roots.  We clear up that distinction.  The idea of a bound base is completely new to my students.  They have been told about adding suffixes and prefixes, but with that being said, they do not know that a word like <corrode> is made up of a prefix and a bound base (a bound base simply being a base that needs an affix).  By the end of the year, they are delighted to be able to say that technology, manufacture, geography, and hallway are all compound words!

Besides learning about free bases and bound bases, they learn that some bases that derived from Latin verbs have alternate spellings.  They come from the same Latin verb and have the same denotation, but have two or more spellings.  An example of this would be the bases <duce> and <duct> that we see in <produce> and <product>.  The bases derived from Latin verbs are so commonly seen in modern words that this is definitely a worthwhile focus for my students.  By the end of the year they have gained so much in the way of understanding about the types of morphemes a word can have, that hypothesizing word sums is one of their favorite activities!

Words come from somewhere.

Some words have been around for hundreds of years.  Others are newer.  Words are being added to our English lexicon all the time.  Our language is always changing, and those changes are brought about by the people who speak the language.  In other words, words have a history and that history becomes their story.  This is the facet of structured word inquiry that always draws my students in.  They love knowing that words were, in effect, born at some point in time.  In some cases the spelling of a particular base was influenced by other languages and changed along the way.  In other cases the meaning of the word as it was used by people over time changed rather drastically!  It could be that the word now means the opposite of what it once did!  And, of course, there are many words that have retained their spelling and their sense and meaning.

In the course of conducting word investigations, students find out that words may have come from a number of different languages.  Generally, they find that the majority of the words they look up come from either Old English, Latin, or Greek.  At first I just let them get used to the idea that the words we use came from languages such as these. But by late in the first half of the year, I think it’s time to put those languages in perspective.  What I mean is to look at a timeline and think about how long ago Old English was being spoken!  Is Greek older than Latin, or is Latin older than Greek?  In small bits, I present some of the history of our language.  I talk about Proto Indo European.  It makes sense to do so since it is referenced so often at Etymonline!

While we are looking at the language of origin, we take note of certain signals in the spelling of a word that might point us in that direction.  For example, when we see a medial <y>, we see that as a clue that this word is no doubt from Greek!  Or when we see the spelling <ch> and the pronunciation of /ʃ/, we see that as a clue that this word is from French.  There is just so much understanding to be gained by knowing more about the ancestors of our modern words!

Words are not used in isolation, so they should not be studied in isolation.

So much of Structured Word Inquiry involves a scientific “compare and contrast” model of thinking.  If we look at a word all by itself and try to understand its spelling, we are lost.  But if we look at a word among its family of relatives (meaning other words that share its base and etymological ancestor), we can learn so much more.  When we are studying and analyzing the grammar in a sentence, we look to the affixes on the words to give us clues about how the word is functioning within the sentence.  We notice that some suffixes are unique to specific parts of speech while others need to be seen in the context of a sentence.  For example, when we see <-ion> added to <animate>, we think of the new word as a noun instead of a verb.  But a base with an <-ly> suffix needs the context of the sentence to reveal its part of speech.  Two possibilities are that it can be fixed to a noun to become an adjective (as is the case with <elderly>) or to an adjective to become an adverb (as is the case with awkwardly).

Graphemes are another aspect of English spelling that needs to be understood in context of the word they are part of.  So many of the graphemes in English have the potential to represent several phonemes.  When we investigate the word as a whole, the etymological origins or journey can give us an understanding of why certain graphemes are used over others or why the grapheme we see represents a specific phoneme.  An example I am thinking of is the <ch> digraph which might represent the /ʃ/ phoneme in words like <chef> or <ricochet> that came from French, yet represent the /tʃ/phoneme in words like <chair> and <search> that came from Old French and further back, Latin.

Words are ours to enjoy!

Words should be appreciated because they are a reflection of the people who use them.  The dictionary isn’t a collection of the words we should be using.  It is a collection of the words we are using.  Every year we hear about words that are removed from the dictionary because no one uses them, and also, new words popping up and being used often enough to need to be added to the dictionary.  You see, dictionaries are a reflection of the words we use.  Each edition is a snapshot of use in that year.  Luckily, most words hang around a long time and so we don’t notice the age of a dictionary unless we are looking for a recently added word.

Students are so used to dry vocabulary lessons and spelling tests, that they lack curiosity and/or enjoyment of words.  I feel it is important to reinstate that idea.  To that end we look at things like portmanteau words, phonesthemes, extremely long words, and oxymorons.  The children discover that words can be playful and even make us laugh.  They enjoy discovering that motorcycle is a portmanteau word that blends the words motorized and bicycle into one!  They find satisfaction in knowing that email is a blending of electronic and mail.

Phonesthemes are so intriguing!  They are not a spelling, but rather a common pronunciation found in a group of words that also share an aspect of their meaning.  The words are not necessarily related etymologically, but there is a common “sense” among them.  An example would be /sn/ which is part of snore, snout, sniff, snot, snarl, snort, and sneer.  Have you already guessed what “sense” they share?  Right.  They all have something to do with the nose.

Oxymorons are simply two words with an opposite meaning paired together.  A few examples would be seriously funny, jumbo shrimp, and awfully good.  By giving students the opportunity to see words in this way, we make them inviting.   Words become something to share and talk about enthusiastically!

 

I hope you can see that I have a master plan.  I definitely have a master plan.  There are certain parts of this plan that need to be addressed right up front.  For instance, I always start with showing students that words have structure and can be written as word sums.  That is an idea that is never checked off as having been “covered.”  It is a part of every investigation and every inquiry we do all year.  And we spend a lot of time throughout the year conducting word investigations.  We do them as a whole class, we do them individually, and we do them in small groups.

The rest of the concepts I’ve listed overlap each other all the time throughout the school year.  I don’t feel there is one order that is more correct or makes more sense than another.   If I see something in a word investigation that I can illuminate, I do.  If I notice a misspelling in a writing sample that I think needs attention, I will do just that.  I will write a similarly misspelled word on the board so we can talk about the concept that needs to be applied in that given situation.  I am not teaching my students to spell one word at a time, but rather to learn the consistent and predictable conventions that English has, so they can apply them to the words they encounter every day.

I watch their reactions to what they are hearing. I vary what I do day to day to keep them engaged.  If I think the current activity is losing momentum, I will take a break from it and show some kind of orthography-related video.  Often, doing a bit of sharing about current projects gets everyone back on track.  I always let them work in small groups so they can talk through what they are doing.  You are encouraged to keep an eye on the groups to make sure all are involved in the talking, the researching, and the writing.  We always do a large group sharing of small group projects.  It is this time spent sharing projects that leads to the understanding of words, their meanings, their structure, and their stories.  It is when everything settles in and over time, with repeated presentations and discussions, becomes permanent information.

I mentioned earlier that there are certain inquiries that I hold off on until the students have a more solid understanding of a word’s structure, and of how to use Etymonline, our dictionaries, Word Searcher and toPhonetics.  That makes sense to me since another goal is to consistently increase their level of independent investigation.  My students know that I welcome questions, but they also learn that I will turn the question back on them if I think they can answer it themselves.  I don’t investigate for them or hand them everything they need to make anything easy.  And they appreciate that.  It is one of the comments I have been hearing every year since 2012 when I first incorporated Structured Word Inquiry into my teaching.  This is fun because they get to find out things for themselves.  And that’s the way learning should be!

When You Have a Febriferous Illness, You Need a Febrifuge!

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Ricard_Canals_-_Sick_Child_%28Octavi%2C_the_artist%27s_son%29_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Feverfew.jpg

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.

File:Cinchona.pubescens01.jpg

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

 

 

 

Will a Pandemic Lead to Pandemonium?

Do you remember the way you learned new vocabulary words when you were in school?  If your teachers were like mine, they said something like, “Here is a list of vocabulary words from our lesson/story/curriculum that I think are important for you to know.  Please use the dictionary and write a definition for each.  Then use the word in a sentence.”  Was that helpful as you moved forward in the lesson/story/curriculum?  Yes.  Yes, it was.  You learned what the word meant for the context you were presented with, and you learned how to use it in a sentence.  In this way, if you encountered that word in the future, you might remember what it meant and even be able to use it yourself.  For so many years, I thought that was enough.  I thought that there wasn’t anything else to know about a word.  But I was wrong.  I was soooo wrong!  Let me illustrate by choosing a word we currently see in the news every day.  Imagine that this is the list selected by your teacher as being words you should know to better understand the current health crisis situation.

~pandemic
~crisis
~coronavirus
~contagious
~quarantine

Here’s what your teacher asks you to do:   “Write a definition of each word and then use the word in a sentence.”

Pandemic:  “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.”    The coronavirus is causing a pandemic.  (I used the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

If we just stop there, we know something.  We can connect that understanding to what we read in the news.  But what if we looked more closely at this word?  What if we fully investigated this word using Structured Word Inquiry?  What more could we gain?

Pandemic:  “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.”  According to Etymonline, it was first attested in 1660.  Before that it was in Late Latin as pandemus.  Before that it was in Greek as pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common”, from pan- “all” and demos “people”.  Interestingly enough it is modeled on the word <epidemic> which may be less broad in its reach than a pandemic. The clue to that being the morpheme <pan> “all” being used in <pandemic> versus the morpheme <epi> “among, upon” being used in <epidemic>.

Here is what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as the difference between <epidemic> and <pandemic>:

“A disease can be declared an epidemic when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a pandemic, which affects an even wider geographical area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected.”

So an epidemic can become a pandemic, but a pandemic doesn’t become an epidemic.  Interesting distinction!

Now that we have an understanding of what this word means, let’s collect some of its morphological and/or etymological relatives.  Still looking at the entry for <pandemic> at Etymonline, we see a link to <demotic> and at the end of the paragraph <pandemia>.  If we follow the link to <demotic>, we see <democracy>, <demography>,  and <endemic>.  Before I leave Etymonline to search elsewhere, I try one more thing.  I type demos, the Hellenic root of this word into the search bar.  When I do that, many of the same words come up.  But there is one I didn’t find earlier — <demogogue>.  What a worthy addition to this group of morphological relatives.

Let’s take a look at this list:

pandemic  —  disease outbreak reaching all the people
epidemic  —  disease outbreak among a group of people
demotic  —  preferring to common people
pandemia  —  epidemic that attacks all people

democracy  —  government by the people
democratic  —  favoring government by the people
demography  —  studying the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people
demographic  —  relating to the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people
endemic  —  particular to a specific place group of people
demogogue  —  leader seeking political power by pandering to prejudices, fears, and ignorance of the people

Here is the grapheme/phoneme correspondence for <pandemic>:
<pandemic>
[pændɛmɪk]

Noting the denotation of the  bound base <deme>, the relationship between all of these words is now obvious.  We’ve gone from understanding one word, to understanding ten!  Instead of meeting one member of a family, we’ve met the family!  We are much more likely to remember them when we meet again!

But have we met all of the members?  Why didn’t I come across <pandemonium> when I was looking into this family?  It appears to share both <pan> and <dem>,  doesn’t it?  I can certainly think of pandemonium as a chaotic situation involving people.  As changes are happening in the way we are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, it certainly feels like pandemonium!   The only way to know for sure is to look at Etymonline.

The first thing I notice is the 1667 spelling of this word.  Pandæmonium.  Notice the letter after the <d>?  That is the Old English letter known as ash.  We see that John Milton coined this word putting together Greek pan- “all” and Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit” which is from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” and before that from daimōn “lesser god.”  We see the same <pan> that we see in <pandemic>, but definitely not the same <deme>!

If we follow the link to <demon>, we find that it was first attested in the 12 c. and at that time meant “evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, devil.”  It is from Latin daemon and before that from Greek daimōn “divine power; lesser god.”  We have all the evidence we need to prove that the <deme> in <pandemic> is not the same <dem> that we see in <pandemonium>.  But is <dem> a base in this word?  That determination is something we haven’t collected enough evidence for.  So let’s gather a few morphological relatives of <demon>.  Below the entry for <demon> we see a list of related words.

~demoness
~demonarchy
~demonic
~demonize
~demonology
~pandemonium

Looking at this list of morphological relatives, it is obvious that the base is not <deme> as it is in <pandemic>, but <demon>!  And when I highlight the base as I have, it is easy to recognize some very familiar suffixes, isn’t it?  And before you point it out, yes, <arch> is a Hellenic base “ruler, leader, chief” and <loge> is also a Hellenic base “discourse, theory, science.”

Before we walk away from this investigation with the idea that pandemic is not related to pandemonium, we need to notice one more thing at Etymonline.  It is the Proto Indo European root for both <pandemic> and <pandemonium>.  Under the entry for <demotic> we see that Greek demos is from PIE *da-mo- “division,” from root *da- “to divide.”  Under the entry for <demon>, we see that Greek daimōn is from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider,” from root *da- “to divide.”  Looking at the entry for *da- we see this:

So I guess we can say that these two words are distant relatives!  Fascinating, isn’t it?   So what have we gained by going beyond a dictionary definition of the word <pandemic>?  How is what we have learned useful in understanding this word in the context of a current news story?  What we have learned not only deepens our sense of this word in this context, it also connects us to related words and prepares us for coming across any words in this family in the future.  The spelling ‘dem’ within a word will now be noticed by you and by me.  We will see it and pause for a moment considering whether it is the base <deme> having to do with people, the base <demon> having to do with evil spirits, or maybe not a morpheme on its own at all!  But the best part is that we have an understanding of those possibilities and will be able to determine which it is relatively quickly and get on with our reading!  You might say that Structured Word Inquiry helps you understand what you need to understand in the moment, but then also prepares you for words you will encounter as you read in the future.  A quick look in a dictionary just helps you in the moment.

I have just one more intriguing thing to share with you.  I came across this article today at Aleteia and couldn’t believe the irony.  It is about Saint Corona, whose remains are buried in Anzu, Italy, and who just happens to be one of the patron saints of pandemics.  If you’re like me, you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Is that for real?”  It is.  Read about it HERE.  Saint Corona died a tragic and disturbing death at age 16.

  
Wikipedia St. Corona, abt 1350

 

I’ve left you with the rest of the list we started with – the list of words related to our current world health crisis.  Besides a dictionary definition, what can you find out that would benefit your understanding now and also as you encounter other words in years to come?  Structured Word Inquiry affects your reading, your writing, and your enjoyment of learning!  If you find out really cool stuff, please share!

 

Crisis:  “A situation that has reached a critical phase.”   The spread of the coronavirus has caused a health crisis.

Coronavirus:  “any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19 .”   There are new cases of the coronavirus in the United States every day.

Contagious:  “Transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.”   The coronavirus is extremely contagious.

Quarantine:  “A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.”  People who have been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.

 

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 <corrode>)
~~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
~~prefix
~~suffix
~~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.

A Symphony of Suffixes

When I sat down to lunch with my grade level team today, I was bubbling over with satisfaction after a rich and wonderful discussion that had just taken place in my room.  I couldn’t help myself.  I had to share what had just happened.  I was too excited.

As I sometimes do, I wrote a word on the board and was asking the students to take a minute to think of what the word sum might be.  I was looking for a hypothesis.  From there we would see where the conversation went.

The word I began with today was <scientist>.

I made sure I gave time for the students to think about it.  I have a few students whose hand shoots up automatically, and when I call on them, they need to pause to think of their response.  You too?  Then I also have a consistent core group of students who love to participate, and who, once they’ve thought about it, raise their hand in order to share.  And then there are the rest of the students who watch and wait.  They tend to keep their hands by their sides and their eyes looking down.  I recognize that some are feeling unsure, but it is so important to participate in the discussion.  Today I felt that this question could be asked of one of the students in this third group.  I looked over the group and chose carefully.  The student I called on thought for a moment and then suggested <sci + en + tist>.

Me: “That’s very interesting.  Thank you for that.  What do the rest of you think about Vanessa’s hypothesis?  Is there a part of it that you have seen before in another word?  Do you recognize any affixes you’ve seen before?”

Student: “I kind of think that it isn’t <tist>, but rather <ist> at the end.”

Me: “Can you think of another word with <ist> at the end?  If we can, we will have collected some evidence that the <ist> is a suffix.”

One of the students who is usually reluctant to raise his hand, raised his hand.  I called on him.  He said, “Mist?”

Me: “Oooooo.  Now that’s an interesting word.  I want to come back to that word in a minute.  Thank you for thinking of it.”  I called on another student whose hand was raised.

Student: “I was thinking of biologist. ”

As I was writing ‘biologist’ on the board, other words were being called out.  I wrote them down as fast as I could.  There was paleontologist, archeologist, arsonist, tribologist, and zoologist.  And almost before I could finish writing the last word, a student blurted.  “Hey!  Almost all of them have an <log> before the <ist>!”

Me: “Brilliant!  Scholars are people who notice things!  Thank you for noticing that.  Can anyone tell me what a biologist is?”

Student: “It’s someone who studies living things.”

Student: “And the <o>’s a connecting vowel, isn’t it?”  (The student was referring to the <o> that follows the <bi> base.  We had looked at ‘biosphere’ earlier in the year.)

Me: “It sure is!”

Student: “And isn’t a paleontologist someone who studies fossils?”

Me: “Yes.  And an archeologist?”

Students said they heard of it, but no one knew what exactly an archeologist studied.  So I told them that this person would be studying old times and ancient civilizations.  At this point, a student who hadn’t previously joined the discussion raised his hand and said, “What’s an arsonist?”

The person who had suggested the word replied, “A person who starts fires.”  There were a few confused by that.  I could tell by their facial reactions.  I went on to say that there are people fascinated by fire and they start fires to watch how the fire travels.  Then I added that sometimes other people get hurt either fighting these fires or because they got caught in the fire.  Arsonists usually get in trouble for starting fires.

When we were ready to look at the next word, at least three people spoke at once and explained that a tribologist was a person who studied rubbing things together.  Yes, it’s true.  About a week and a half ago, we watched a TED video about Jennifer Vail, a tribologist.  She is really quite fascinating.  Obviously the students thought so too because they suggested this word and remembered a lot about the video too!  Click HERE for a link to the video in case you are intrigued.

Lastly, someone identified a zoologist as someone who studies animals.

Me: “I notice that all of these words have an <-ist> suffix, and they each refer to a person.  We call that kind of suffix an agent suffix.  There are others, but for today we are noticing this one, the <-ist> suffix.”

At this point I went back to the word <mist>.  I asked if <mist> belonged on this list.  I asked if it was referring to a person?  The student who had suggested it, said that it did not fit.  I followed up by saying that the <ist> in mist is like the <ing> in sing.  Neither are suffixes.  They are coincidences of spelling.

Me: “If the <-ist> suffix is the part of the word that tells us this word is referring to a person, which part of the word is telling us that the person studies something?”

Student: “The <log>?”

Me:  “Excellent.  So notice now that the biologist is the person who studies living things and the paleontologist is the person who studies fossils, but the arsonist is the person who starts the fire.  It is NOT the person who studies fires.  Right?  There’s no <log> in that word.  And so the scientist is the person who does the science just like an artist is the person who does the art!  <Loge> is a bound base with a denotation of “science of.”  We usually think of it having to do with studying the science of something.  That makes every word up here with <log> in it a compound word!  Awesome thinking everyone!  Now let’s get back to the word we started looking at, <scientist>.  We’ve figured out that the <-ist> is a suffix.  What are your thoughts about the rest of the word?”

Student:  “Well, I’m thinking about <science> and wondering if what happens is that when the <-ist> suffix is added to <scient>, the <t> changes to <ce>?”

Me:  “Interesting.  The suffixing changes I have seen are a final consonant being doubled, a <y> changing to an <i>, and a single, final, non-syllabic <e> being replaced.  I haven’t ever seen a change like you are describing.  Could it be that <ent> and <ence> are both suffixes and are used to get two forms of the word?  Can anyone think of a word with an <ence> suffix?”

Student:  “Coincidence!  You just said that the <ist> in <mist> was a coincidence of spelling!”

Me:  “So I did. Can anyone think of another word?  The more words we can think of the more evidence we have.”

Student:  “Evidence.  You just said the word evidence!”

Me:  “That is so funny.  I surely did!”

Student:  “How about violence?”

Student:  “How about brilliance?”

Student: “Brilliance is spelled with an <-ance>.”

Me:  “Right.  Brilliance does have an <-ance>.  I’ll write it to the side in case we think of more like that.”

Student: “And silence.”

And then it dawned on me.  And I pointed out that we can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘coincidence’ for <-ent> and make the word ‘coincidental’.  We can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘evidence’ with the <-ent> suffix and make the word ‘evidently’.  At this point the students began to anticipate that ‘violence’ could be ‘violent’ and ‘silence’ could be ‘silent’.  So we decided that the suffixes <-ence> and <-ent> can work with the same base.  And of course we thought about <-ance> and <-ant> having the same kind of relationship.

Student:  “Could it be that these suffixes are different forms of the same suffix, kind of like the assimilated prefixes we are studying?”

Me:  “That’s something to think about, isn’t it?”

I will admit that the last question put the biggest smile on my face.  I love that the students are making connections to what else they are learning about English spelling.  I love that they are asking questions and getting caught up in these classroom discussions.  It was so much fun!  I’m beginning to recognize that from February to June is my favorite time of the year.  This is when the pieces start to fit together and the understandings start falling into place.  The students start having words on their minds all the time.  Here is a picture of the board.  You will recognize how everything ended up where it did from my description above.  You may also recognize that I misspelled paleontology.  I didn’t notice that until tonight when I was looking back at the picture.

All of the above happened with the second class I see during my day.  There was one more group to come in.  They needed to take this journey for themselves, so I erased the board and started all over.  Different words were suggested, but the ending observations were the same.

Now I want to take you back to my lunchtime discussion with my grade level colleagues.  As I was going on about what the students were thinking of and what we were noticing as a class, I could tell that it was one of those times “you had to be there.”  They weren’t feeling as excited as I was.  They listened and followed along, but didn’t get why this was such a big deal for me.  And then one of them said something that explained her perspective to me perfectly.  She said, “That’s just it.  If some words can have an <-ence> and some can have an <-ance>, how will our struggling spellers know which one to use?  What can you tell them so they know which one to use?”

She is used to false rules that focus on what is on the surface of a word without having to really know much about the word.  I told her that we would need to know more about the word’s etymology to know which to use.  In the meantime, the understanding gained today will help if, for example, the student can spell ‘silent’, and want to spell ‘silence.’  Instead of phonetically spelling it as *silints (which they may do anyway – phonics runs deep), they have a chance of knowing that it will have an <-ence> suffix.  I have no magic fix-it fairy dust.  I just keep letting students see for themselves what is really happening in spelling and how consistent it is. Progress comes more slowly than others would like, but that is because instead of “know this by Friday for the test”, I am not telling students what to know.  I let them see for themselves.  I give them time to let things sink in. We revisit concepts often and hope that much of the understandings they develop here, will be theirs for life.

I can hardly wait for tomorrow so I can take the discussion in this same direction with my first group.  We talked about some of these things this morning, but we didn’t take it in this direction.  I’d like to see what words they think of, and if they recognize for themselves what the other students recognized today.  Below is a picture of the board from the discussion I had with my last group of the day.  I love looking at this and knowing that between the three classes, we collect a lot of evidence to support what we understand about spelling.  That much is evident.  🙂

 

Twelve students and twenty minutes … Let’s make the best of this!

For about two months in late fall, I worked with a group of 12 students for 20 minutes a day, four times a week.  These were students I also saw for 90 minutes every day when they came in as part of their homeroom.  This small group opportunity is part of what our school calls WIN time (WIN stands for What I Need).  As a grade level team, we talk about the needs we see and how to group the students so we can address those needs.  I asked for this particular group of 12 based on spelling errors I saw in their writing samples at the beginning of the year. What an opportunity to reinforce some reliable concepts in our language!

We started by looking at words that take an <-es> suffix versus those that take an <-s> suffix.  I picked this because it’s a great place to begin noticing things about suffixing, digraphs, and roles of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  I could have started with any number of activities.  In fact, it seems that no matter where I begin when talking about English spelling, we end up reinforcing many ideas, just in different contexts.  That is the beauty of teaching with a Structured Word Inquiry focus.  We think about something particular, we collect some words to examine what it is we are focusing on, we make some observations about what we are seeing, and in the process of all that, we deepen our understanding of many things.  Most important of all, we build an understanding of the connectedness of these concepts and facts about how our spelling system works.

Another reason I chose to start with the <-s> and <-es> suffixes is that I wanted to give this group a preview of them before we discussed them as a larger group.  It always amazes me how much we can talk about in only 20 minutes!  We began by talking about using angle brackets to represent a spelling.  When we see a word in angle brackets, we spell it out.  We don’t announce it.  When we want to announce it, we can either write the word without angle brackets at all or we can represent the pronunciation in IPA.  If we use IPA symbols, we use slash brackets.  As you can see below, I demonstrated with the word <teach>.  I also showed the students how we might represent the graphemes and digraphs in the word <teach>.  The word has 5 letters and 3 graphemes.  One of the graphemes is a single letter grapheme, and the others are digraphs.  I don’t spend too much time on what I have just described because with this group beginning in mid-October,  this information is already something we are reviewing.

The next thing we did was to talk about words that can take an <-s> suffix.  If you look at the left side of the picture below, you’ll see that as the students suggested words, I was writing the final letter of the word + s.  In this way I could encourage the students to think of words that ended in other ways (besides words that end with the same letter that was previously named).  Since we already had the word <teach> on the board, I asked what suffix we would add if we wanted to talk about the person who teaches in the next room.  In this case, we are not adding a suffix in order to make the word plural.  We are adding a suffix to indicate the verb tense.  A few of the students knew we would add an <-es> suffix to <teach>, <peach>, and <coach>, but no one knew why.

When someone asked about <bounce>, I wrote it out as a word sum.  When a word ends in a single final non-syllabic <e>, it is not as obvious to the students that the suffix being added is an <-es>.  When we compare the spelling prior to adding the suffix to the spelling of the word after the suffix has been added, it would appear that only an <s> was added.  But that is not the case.

In order to understand why we need an <-es>, I directed the focus to the word someone had thought of that ended with a final <t> – <pits>.  We announced the word <pits> as /pɪts/ and noticed that we could easily feel ourselves adding the /s/ after the /t/.  Then we announced the word <teaches> as /titʃɪz/ and noticed that immediately following the /tʃ/ we said /ɪz/.  In fact we found it awkward and unsuccessful to follow the /tʃ/ with either /s/ or /z/ by itself.  In other words, we needed the suffix to be <-es> which would add an /ɪz/ to the pronunciation of the base.

Now we took a look at <bounce> (the rest of that list wasn’t there yet).  We tested to see if we could just add an <-s> suffix to bounce.  The students realized quickly that the word ends with an /s/ already.  Adding an <-s> suffix wouldn’t work. In announcing the word with the suffix added, we wouldn’t know where one /s/ left off and the next one began!  Then they tried adding the /ɪz/ of <-es> to the base /bɑʊns/.  That worked!

My next question to the students was, “Why does the word <bounce> have a final <e>?”  No one was sure.  There were guesses about the vowels in the word, but in this word, the <e> had a different role.  I asked if anyone could think of two more words that were similarly spelled.  The words <spice> and <fence> were suggested.  I asked, “Why weren’t we able to just add an <-s> suffix?”

“Because there was already an /s/ at the end of the word and it would end with /s..s/!”

Of course that led to lots of students trying to demonstrate how it wouldn’t work.  But that’s okay.  I know they understand.

“Does the <c> always represent /s/ in a word?”

“No.  It’s a /k/ in <cat>.  Oh!  The <e> tells us the <c> is /s/!”

We noted that in <spice>, the <e> was doing two things.  It was also indicating that the <i> would be pronounced as /aɪ/.  Next I asked if they could think of words that ended with a /s/ pronunciation, but were not spelled with a <c>.  They quickly thought of horse, house, and mouse.  We discussed the role of the single, final non-syllabic <e> in these words.  The <e> in these words had yet a different role!  It was preventing the words from looking like plurals when they clearly weren’t!  My favorite examples of where leaving off the final <e> would truly confuse a reader are please and pleas and dense and dens.  A student may not recognize why someone would think *hous is a plural word since *hou isn’t a word in English, but they will recognize that dens are where some animals live.

I left our notes on the board and explained the work my WIN group had done to my regularly scheduled classes.  The 12 were scattered among three classes and were eager to explain things for the rest of their class when the opportunity came up.

 

Day 2

The next day I wanted to continue looking at words that take an <-es> suffix.  I wanted to focus on the ending grapheme/phoneme correspondences when the word was in its singular form.  I listed the headings and together we noticed which graphemes could represent those phonemes.  In the first column, I started by underlining the final <tch> trigraph and/or the <ch> digraph. then we moved to the middle two columns that ended up including four different graphemes that could represent a final /s/!  As you can see, I wrote out word sums so they could see over and over that with these word final phonemes, we would need to use an <-es> suffix.  I also underlined the final graphemes in each word.  As we went along, the students tried adding an <s> pronounced as /s/ and then quickly knew they needed to add an <-es> pronounced as /ɪz/.  With words in the last column, we talked about the single, final non-syllabic <e> that was following the <g>.  The students wondered aloud if it was like the <e> that follows a <c>!  So then we could compare the <g> grapheme (when followed by an <e>) to the trigraph <dge>.

The last thing I did was to point out the vowel in front of the trigraphs <tch> and <dge>.  I asked if the students recognized whether they were considered short vowels or long vowels.  We said them together and they identified them as short.  I underlined them in red.

Again, I left our work on the board and shared our findings with the three larger classes.

 

Day 3

While sharing with the larger groups yesterday, someone asked about words with a final /z/ phoneme.  How brilliant, right?  Of course we added another column today and explored the graphemes that could represent the phoneme /z/.  Once more we went over the different final graphemes and proved to ourselves that they couldn’t take an <-s> suffix, whether it was representing an /s/ or /z/ phoneme.  The words with these final grapheme/phonemes needed to take an <-es> suffix that would be announced as /ɪz/.

 

Day 4

Today we went back to explore the words with either a final <tch> trigraph or a <ch> digraph.  The students brainstormed a bunch of example words of each.  Then we made observations about what was immediately in front of each.  We began to notice some consistencies.  In front of a word final <ch> digraph there was either a consonant or a vowel digraph.  In front of a <tch> digraph there was a single short vowel.  We wondered if this could explain why a <ch> is used in <bench> and not a <tch>.  It was time to get the students working on their own.  I split them into groups of two.  This is my favorite group size for word investigation.  Here are the specific topics of inquiry for each group:

~words in which a consonant precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a vowel digraph precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a single vowel precedes a final <tch> trigraph.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when an <-ion> suffix is added.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when a <-ure> suffix is added.
~words that take an <-es> suffix.

And they were off!  They got out their orthography notebooks and turned to the next available page.  One in each group grabbed a Chromebook so they could look at Word Searcher to find words with the targeted word ending.  They also had a dictionary handy in case there was a word they didn’t know.  I walked around to make sure each group was clear on what they were looking for.  Then I let them work on their own for the rest of the time.

 

Day 5

Another group work day.  They were collecting words and keeping track of them in their notebooks.  I walked around and checked in to make sure they weren’t collecting words they didn’t know when there were plenty of words they did know to choose from.  That seems like something I shouldn’t have to do, but my students are new to tasks that ARE NOT busy work.  They are used to mindless spelling tasks in which they aren’t expected to really think about what they are doing and why.  After years of Words Their Way, they are used to shifting words into piles that don’t necessarily make sense to them.  The words are moved there because of some surface-y reason that does not have any basis in the logic of our English spelling system.  And the students learn to do the task without asking the kinds of questions that lead to a better understanding that logic.

 

Day 6

I circulate, guiding the students in now grouping the words they found.  If they found a vowel digraph in front of the <ch> digraph for instance, how many words did they find with that same vowel digraph?  How many different vowel digraphs did they find?  Each group had some organizing to do before they could make observations.

 

Day 7

By this point, the groups were not all at the same point in their investigations.  That makes sense because they were investigating different things.  When one group starts making a poster or chart, the other groups get a little concerned.  They ask, “When is this due?” I always tell them that they will be given the time they need, provided they stay focused and productive each day.  The groups that were investigating digraphs and trigraphs were given large graph paper so they could share their findings by creating bar graphs.  The groups looking at a word final <t> and what happens to its pronunciation when an <-ion> or <-ure> suffix is added, made their own posters.  I asked them to include a page where they color coded the graphemes and phonemes in each word so we could see how the grapheme <t> ended up representing more than one phoneme.

As the groups finished, I asked them to write scripts.  What would they say as they presented their findings?  I told them that when they had a script written, I would revise it, edit it, and then I would record their presentation with my camera.  They liked that idea!  I liked the idea that they now had to think through their observations as they were writing them down.  This took several days, and the video recording took several more for each group.  When one group was completely done, I gave them another investigation that could easily be finished with our regular classroom work (back with their homeroom groups).

Here are the videos sharing the investigative work they did.

 

 

As I was filming these, I saw that a few groups of students chose words that they didn’t know.  I was hoping to catch those prior to the presentations, but obviously I didn’t catch them all.  When I asked the students if they knew those words, an interesting thing happened.  They said they did!  And then they proceeded to announce the words.  Do you see here what I see?  The students who struggle with reading and writing the most believe that announcing a word means you know that word.  Can they use it in a sentence? No.  Do they know what it means? No. But they have been taught (without the words necessarily having ever been said out loud) that announcing a word is what’s important in reading.  It is more important than what the word means.  Fluency over comprehension.  That is what the students think.  This is why I will always push the idea that a word’s meaning is the most important thing to know about a word.  Once we know its meaning, we can research to understand its spelling and then its pronunciation.

I have seen the effects of the small group work with the students mentioned in this post.  On a day that we were reviewing suffixes, they spoke up confidently about when to use <-es> versus <s>.  In the group work we are currently doing, they no longer sit quietly.  They contribute.  They question.  In their daily work I am still seeing spelling errors.  Of course I am.  I cannot single handedly help 75 students understand every single spelling error they make.  But what I can do is help them understand some of the consistent patterns we see in English.  Notice I said to “understand some of the consistent patterns.”  Up until now they may have been required to memorize lists that had consistent patterns, but that is not the same as understanding why a spelling is one way and not another.  What I teach helps them understand the spelling of many words – even words they don’t know yet.  I am teaching how the system works, not just how a single word is spelled.

Once the last group was finished with video recording, the WIN groups were reshuffled so that other needs in other areas could be addressed.  I have a new group now.  We are not working on word investigations.  This time we are reading Peter Pan and stopping to talk about the colorful and often times unfamiliar vocabulary used.  We also pause to look at the specific writing techniques of James M. Barrie.

And just in case you are wondering, our current project is focused on the topic of assimilated prefixes!