“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
We were watching a TED talk about the interesting forms of life found at the bottom of the ocean. The presenter, David Gallo, used the above quote. He was referring to being open to what he might see as he voyaged to the bottom in his submarine, Alvin. The TED talk was fascinating. Gallo’s enthusiasm and excitement kept the attention of my students and myself. He made us feel as if we were on the voyage with him and seeing what he saw. And he got me thinking about the word <voyage>.
Several images popped into my head…
~the name of an old television show my brothers used to watch when I was a child – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”,
~people waving and shouting “Bon Voyage!” to people on large oceangoing boats such as the Titanic.
It got me thinking. In both of those situations the voyage itself is a trip across or down into a large body of water (and in the case of the Titanic, an unintentional “down into a large body of water”). These are major undertakings. What other kinds of journeys are considered to be voyages?
As silly as it sounds, my mind went to another television series, “Star Trek: Voyager”, that my children watched at times during its run from 1995-2001.
And at that point I thought of Voyager I and Voyager II which are the unmanned spacecrafts originally launched in 1977 that are still sending us information from the outer reaches of space! As I was watching the video I have included here, the following words popped out at me. “It’s discovering new things because it’s going where nothing has been before.” That sentiment is similar to what I heard David Gallo use in his TED talk. It was the connection between a voyage, exploration, and discovery.
With a solid idea of how I think of this word, and of how I have heard it used in significant ways, I was ready to explore it further. You see, what I have learned since happening upon Structured Word Inquiry is that there is discovery beyond a word’s current day usage. It is something I now look forward to. It’s like a special gift I used to overlook because I was looking for fancy paper which would make it catch my attention. Instead, the wrapping was the word itself. You might think of it as having been camouflaged in its own spelling!
My first stop is the dictionary that is on my Mac desktop. The definition of <voyage> confirms what I already knew – that a voyage is a trip, generally by sea or space.
Next I check in at Etymonline.
The word <voyage> wasn’t used as a verb until the 15th century, but was used as a noun as early as the 13th century. That is when it was first attested. Before that it was used in Old French, spelled voiage, and used to mean “travel, journey, movement, course, errand, mission, crusade.” As I think of those words, the only two I might link to discovery or exploration are mission and crusade. Further back in time this word existed in Late Latin as viaticum “a journey.” The next note in the entry says that in Classical Latin viaticum referred to the “provisions for a journey.” This is even further away from the sense that is so prevalent in today’s use of the word! Further back in time we see that this word is from via “road, journey, travel.” This piece of information is quite interesting, don’t you think? I have used the word <via> to mean “by way of.” I might say I travel to Madison via highway 12/18. Before I take off down that “road”, I want to see what other resources say about <voyage>.
Next I look in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
Again we are looking at <voyage> as a noun before it was used as a verb. The entry says that probably before 1300 it was viage “a traveling, journey.” Around 1300 the spelling was veyage; borrowed from Old French veiage, vayage, voiage, vaiage and was used to mean “travel, journey, voyage.” The spelling voyage was first recorded in English in 1527, probably influenced by the spelling of the verb. The spelling of the verb is attested in 1475 in Caxton’s translation of the History of Jason. It was borrowed from Middle French voyager, from the Old French noun, voyage. The dictionary goes on to conclude that <voyager> is probably formed from the English verb voyage + er.
Next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here I find this word used in 1297 to mean “an act of traveling; a journey by which one goes from one place to another (esp. at a considerable distance). One thing I love about the OED is the examples of this word in actual use. I can read sentences that include this word from as early as 1297. What I find when I do that is that people were taking voyages for many reasons. Some were just heading home. Some were on a pilgrimage which has a different sense then a voyage with a destination. Others were possibly part of those crusades mentioned at Etymonline. A sentence from c1550 states, “Thei..toke their viage toward Rome, destroying all thinges on everie side.” And another from 1564, “The consuls toke then their viage to invade Carthage”. Since these were typically long trips, it would make sense that the people traveled by horse, yet there is another sentence from 1584, “We must take our voyage on foote the space of forty dayes by the waters side”.
And then there are many examples of how this word has been used to refer to trips over water from as early as 1310. From what we know about early explorers, that is not surprising. As I kept reading through the entry, I saw that in 1667, the word was used to mean a journey, but in a different sense. “So stears the prudent Crane Her annual Voiage, born on Windes”. This sentence is from Paradise Lost and is referring to the bird who, while voyaging, is carried by the winds. Here is where the sense and meaning of <voyage> leaves the ground and the water and ventures into the skies! In 1893, the earth itself is referred to as taking a yearly voyage around the sun.
Another interesting use of this word is in a figurative sense to describe certain events of human life and even what happens after life. Here’s an example of this use in a sentence from 1390. ” Fourtiene yer sche was of Age, Whan deth hir tok to his viage”. If my interpretation of this is correct, a 14 year old girl was taken on death’s voyage. Here’s an interesting sentence from 1529. “Yt much more special assistence of god with his christen churche in their spiritual viage”. I wonder if that is in reference to someone’s deepening of faith (spiritual voyage). One more from 1771, “Among our fellow-lodgers at Berwick, was a couple from London, bound to Edinburgh, on the voyage of matrimony”. These examples show this word having a sense that indicates a journey with a goal or destination.
Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life Youth, 1842 (National Gallery of Art)
This is such an interesting word! I feel like I could almost create a timeline to show how it has gone from meaning simply traveling on land, to including water, to journeying in space, and even to have other figurative senses which are vital to a writer’s mind. It’s time to go back to Etymonline and follow that link to Latin via “road, journey, travel.”
The entry is referring to <via> as a preposition “by way of.” It was first attested in 1779 and is the ablative form of via “way, road, path, highway, channel, course.” Further back it is from the Proto-Indo-European root *wegh- “to go, move, transport in a vehicle.” Continuing in the entry we see that this PIE root is also the source for our English word <way>. There are a number of words that include a form of this stem, via “road.” I have encountered this base before and have found it helpful in visualizing a word’s meaning.
obvious – from <ob-> “in front of; against” and viam “way.” When something is obvious, it is right there in your way and you cannot avoid seeing it or dealing with it!
impervious – from <im-> “not”, <per-> “through”, and via “road.” When a surface is impervious (such as blacktop), the water runs off of it because it cannot filter through the road. One of the activities I have done in my classroom to show the difference between an impervious surface and one that is pervious, is to grab a paint tray. I put a piece of felt on the left side (to represent grass and dirt) and leave the other side open (to represent a parking lot surface). Then the student drizzles water from the top. How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the pervious side? How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the impervious side? It is surprising how much water the piece of felt will hold.
deviate – from <de-> “off, away” and via “way.” When someone deviates from the plan, they are not sticking to the agreed upon path! They are going off in their own way.
previous – from <pre-> “before” and via “road.” We think of something that has happened previously as something that has been on this “path” before – something that has gone this way before.
trivial – from <tri-> “three” and via “road.” This word is one of my favorites because of the following scene I associate with it. At a place where three roads meet, people traveling on those roads might stop and chat. These people are traveling by foot for the most part and no doubt look forward to a bit of friendly conversation. It is a very public place and the topics of conversation are the little things everyone’s life is full of. One might discuss the weather, their business (crops perhaps), politics, or family happenings. And if you are already putting two and two together, you are noticing that these things could be considered trivia!
From 1890 Baby’s Annual Pictures and Stories for Little People. It was published by D. Lothrop Company.
Every time I conduct one of these word investigations, I feel like I have embarked on a voyage of sorts. Not because I began at point A with a question and arrived at an endpoint with an answer, but rather because like the satellites Voyager I and Voyager II, my question has been launched and is still out there. My curiosity is still aflame. My interest is lit and I am receptive to understanding more about any of this when it becomes obvious to me – when it is right there in my path. My smile will only broaden and I will listen attentively. I seek to voyage back in time to consider how a given word was used by the people who spoke it and/or wrote it. I seek to explore its current spelling and understand the significance of the graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. I seek to discover the bigger picture that includes a particular word, but also its relatives, be they morphological or etymological. Think about it. After 40 years, Voyager I and II are still transmitting information to the earth, even though they continuously travel further and further away. We could say, they have boldly gone where no man has gone before! If you are or were ever a Star Trek fan, you will recognize those words. Hmmm. Now I’m thinking about the word <trek>.
“We don’t receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves.” Marcel Proust
Last week my students wrote poems. As I was editing them, one of the errors I saw over and over was the use of <your> when <you’re> was needed. With a recently viewed meme in mind, I wrote the following on the board:
As the students filed in and sat down, the giggles began. Some recognized right away the meaning difference between these two. I asked for a volunteer to share what “your dinner” means with the whole class. Even though I could tell that many understood what each meant, it was interesting to me that there was some struggle in putting that understanding into words. To say that “your dinner” means “your dinner” isn’t very clear, is it? The understanding is so clear in the student’s mind, that they don’t realize they are not communicating that clarity. The student who was defining “your dinner” went so far as to reach her hands out in front of her as if she was handing me a plate of something.
Such an important reminder! I can never forget that even when I am confident that my students understand something, I must give them lots of opportunities to express that understanding either orally or in writing. Expressing oneself with clarity comes with practice!
I asked if anyone could add words to that explanation that would help. A student said, “It’s not my dinner, it’s yours.” That helped because without using the word, it illustrated that the dinner is in “your” possession. Since we have been identifying parts of speech in sentences lately, I asked what kinds of words both “your” and “dinner” were. This is an understanding that is growing, but not fully there yet for all students, so I called on a student that I knew would be able to answer the question. The student identified “your” as a possessive determiner that is announcing the noun “dinner.” Great! A possessive determiner makes sense because we understand that the dinner belongs to someone and that “dinner” is a noun.
Even more students were excited to explain the meaning of “you’re dinner.” The student I called on said easily that “you’re” is short for “you are” so that this phrase is saying that “you will be eaten for dinner!” Anyone who hadn’t been sure of the difference between these two phrases laughed at this point. Students turned to one another and excitedly imagined telling each other that they were the dinner. When it was time to regain their attention, I asked if anyone knew the word we use to name a word like “you’re.” Several could kind of remember how it started but not the word. So I said, “It’s called a contraction.” Among the “Oh, yeah,” comments that I heard, one student in the front blurted out, “You mean like when someone’s having a baby?” I gave the room full of ten-year-olds a moment to laugh uncomfortably before I replied.
“Well, actually, the sense in both situations isn’t that different.”
“Whaaaa?” More giggles and sounds that expressed disbelief.
“When a momma human or animal is giving birth, the muscles contract to push the baby out. When two words like ‘you’ and ‘are’ contract, the letters push together so intensely that one letter pops out. We mark the missing letter with an apostrophe.”
Next I wrote the word ‘contraction’ on the board and asked for a word sum hypothesis.
Looking over what the student had written, I asked if anyone could offer evidence to support the idea of a <con> prefix. Could anyone think of a word with one?
And then someone said, “Contract,” and when he did, one student made a funny face. So I asked if contract was a familiar word. Yes, it was. What does it mean if you sign a contract with someone else? A student replied that it meant there was an agreement between the two people. Great. Now I looked back for the quizzical look I saw a few minutes ago. I asked what the student was thinking. She said, “I was thinking of ‘contract’.” And as she said it I realized that she was putting the stress on the base <tract> instead of the prefix <con>. What a delightful detour this would be!
So we talked about contracting a cold or a disease and how that was an action verb. But when the stress was on the prefix <con>, the word was a noun. We could say that for sure because we could use the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of it. We could talk about a contract.
Because I didn’t want to leave the topic without a few more examples, I wrote two more words on the board that could likewise be read as a noun and a verb, depending on the stress placement.
With ‘record’, the students thought of the verb first with the stress on <cord>. So I let them practice shifting that stress to then recognize the noun ‘record’ which might refer to the time to beat in a race (I want to beat my record of 22 minutes!). I chose ‘combine’ on purpose. I have several students who live on farms. Those were the hands that popped up first on this one. “A combine (stress on the prefix) is a machine used on a farm. It is a noun.”
And, this being such a commonly used verb, most everyone was able to shift the stress to the base <bine> to read the verb “combine.” Several gave examples of how it might be used in a sentence.
Then the very best question came from a student. “If these words look the same, how do you know whether it’s being a noun or a verb?” I thanked this student for giving us one more glorious opportunity to reinforce an important concept. It is how the word is functioning within the sentence. We have to look at where it is in the sentence and how it is functioning to know. Seeing as the next item on our agenda for the day was grammar, I was particularly happy about setting the grammar lesson up in this way!
I was ready to get back to looking at the word sum for <contraction>, when I saw a hand waving in the air. It belonged to someone who is less apt to contribute in class, so I called on him. “What about ‘conscience?’ Does that have a <con> prefix?” I love talking about this word and in particular the base of this word <sci>. The pronunciation is so different in members of its word family, that if you only hear the words conscience, conscious, and science, you might not realize that they even are the same base.
We have talked before about the structure of <science> being <sci + ence> and the base <sci> having a denotation of “know.” So I applied that to <conscience>. Your conscience is that part of you that knows right from wrong. When we say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” it means to rely on those inner feelings that tell you which is a right choice and which is a wrong choice. Then you will know what to do. And then, of course, there is the word <conscious>. When you are conscious, you know what is happening around you. When you are unconscious, you do not! Now back to the word sum for <contraction>.
I stated that we had just come up with a lot of evidence to show that <con> is a prefix in a lot of words, so it is quite plausible to think it might be a prefix in <contraction> as well. Next it was time to think about the next element in the hypothesis, <tract>. I asked if anyone could think of a word with <tract> in it.
Since I hadn’t even gotten to the word I wanted to investigate with them yet, I told them what I knew about this base. (As opposed to looking it up at Etymonline with them.) There are so many side trails we could take with initial questions like this one, that I need to balance when I share my understanding and when I have them dig for the understanding. It has to do with how engaged they are and how long I predict that engagement will last.
I told them that the base <tract> has a denotation of “draw or pull.” Then I asked, “Does a tractor have anything to do with drawing or pulling?” They all nodded yes. “What if your boots have traction on the ice?” Again, they agreed that it would pull on the ice instead of sliding. “When you subtract numbers, is there a sense of pulling down or drawing from the first number and taking some away?” Yes, they could imagine that. “And when we think of abstract nouns, aren’t we thinking of the nouns that aren’t concrete? The ones that have been withdrawn from the concrete nouns? The ones that are separate from material objects such as your chair, desk, and pencil?”
They could see it, but we talked about that denotation being strongest in the words ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’. They had more of a physical sense of pulling and drawing whereas subtract and abstract were more of a mental image of pulling rather than that physical action.
So in the end, it was decided that our word sum hypothesis could make sense based on the fact that we recognized both <con> as a prefix and <tract> as a base. We had already talked about the word <contract>, so we knew that <ion> was a suffix in this word. Now on to the really interesting question for the day!
I asked if anyone had a word sum hypothesis for the word ‘dinner’. As soon as I asked it, I turned to the class and rather excitedly said, “I’ve never thought about where this word comes from or what its word sum will be. We will be learning about it together!” Below is a picture of some of their hypotheses.
There was one more word sum that is not on the list above. It was <di + nn + er>.
When we began the conversation about these four possibilities, we noticed that three of them had an <er> suffix. We brainstormed a few words with a clear suffix and decided that an <er> suffix was plausible. then we looked at the other identified elements. Looking at the first hypothesis, I asked if anyone knew the word <din>. They did not. I explained that a din is an ongoing noise. I could say that there was quite a din coming from the indoor recess area. So then I wondered aloud if at dinner the participants were creating a din. Hmmm. The students thought that perhaps sometimes that is the case, but not always. We thought that if the base was <din>, then we could imagine the <n> doubling when the <er> suffix was added.
The second hypothesis (<dinn + er>) was similar to the first. The base is still listed as <dinn>, although unless this is an alternant spelling to <din>, this might be a different base or it might not be a base at all.
The third hypothesis (<dine/ + n + er>) was interesting too. It put the related word <dine> in our minds. It makes sense to think of dinner as being that time when we dine. But it didn’t take long for someone to point out that we wouldn’t replace the single final non-syllabic <e> with a consonant. Good point. If the second <n> wasn’t part of this, it would be a solid hypothesis for <diner>!
When we got to the fourth hypothesis (<di + nn + er>), I modeled giving it every consideration even though in my own head I had doubts. The students did not recognize <di> as a prefix, nor <nn> as a base. So offhand, we could not think of much evidence to support this one.
We were now at that point where we needed a reliable etymological resource. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard.
There were a lot of interesting things in this entry. First off we talked about how old this word was and that in the 1300’s it was used to mean “the first big meal of the day.” Right away the students blurted that it is no longer the first big meal of the day. As we read through the entry, we noticed that earlier than the 1300’s, this word was from the Old French disner “breakfast.” When we go to the recontructed stem of Gallo-Roman (*desjunare) with a meaning of “to break one’s fast,” we paused to think about what that meant. There were a few students aware that the word breakfast meant to break one’s fast. There were also a few who did not know what a fast was. I explained that if their last meal was the night before, they fasted while they were asleep which means they did not eat while they were asleep. Once they started eating their next meal (breakfast) they were breaking the fasting they were doing while sleeping!
The very next thing in the entry indicated that the reconstructed *desjunare was from the reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare. Here’s where it gets especially interesting. The reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare is from <dis> “do the opposite of” and Late Latin jejunare “to fast. Wow. So the word <dinner> is from a Vulgar Latin word that means “the opposite of fasting.” We had to say this a few times out loud. “To fast is not to eat. And the word dinner derives from a word that means the opposite of not eating which means, of course, eating!
Since both *desjunare and *disjejunare are reconstructed, I didn’t feel as if we had evidence to say that in Modern English we could support a word sum like <di + nn + er>, but we could sure see the story of this word’s spelling in the history! The prefix in <di> could definitely be an assimilated form of <dis>, and the <nn> could be representing <jejune> although I need to know more before I say that with any authority. I left it like this with the students. We are calling <dinner> a free base with the understanding that its literal meaning is to do the opposite of fasting. We feel that it is strongly related to <diner>, but the two would not be on the same matrix.
We also talked about how dinner used to name the noonday meal and that it gradually shifted to later and later in the day. I told them that when I was a little girl, my lunch time meal was called dinner and the evening meal was known as supper. These days we think of dinner as our evening meal and lunch as, well, lunch! As for supper, Etymonline says it is from Old French soper “evening meal.” We may use dinner and supper interchangeably these days to refer to the last meal before bedtime, but as we have shown, they are not synonyms! They have different meanings and stories!
Further down in the entry was this information:
Dinner-time is attested from late 14c.; dinner-hour is from 1750. Dinner-table is from 1784; dinner-jacket from 1852; dinner-party by 1780. Childish reduplication din-din is attested from 1905.
It was interesting to follow this list of extended uses for dinner and the years in which those uses were recorded. What’s funny to me is that when I think of a dinner-jacket, I think of James Bond. What was funny to the children was the use of “din-din.”
At the end of the day after the students were gone, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the word sum hypothesis with the <di> prefix. Was there evidence at the Oxford English Dictionary that would help me further? Interestingly enough, the etymology information for <dinner> linked me to the etymology information for <diner>!
We see some of the same information here that we saw at Etymonline in the entry for <dinner>. The smaller print says that disner contains the same elements ultimately as French déjeuner, Old French desjuner and owes its greater phonetic reduction to its belonging to an earlier period. So the spelling reflects a phonetic reduction from one of the French spellings or perhaps from one of the late Latin reconstructed spellings. My uncertainty about the direct path the spelling took is what I have based my decision on when I leave <dinner> as a free base. Perhaps someone reading this will be able to direct me to another resource or have a deeper understanding of what I can learn from the OED entry. Until then, I will only go as far in my analysis as I have evidence for.
This is the kind of teaching and learning I love. The students find it interesting and are drawn in as participants in the critical thinking that is going on. They are thinking carefully and learning what it means to “provide evidence in support of a hypothesis.” Every time we read an etymological resource together, they understand how to better use the information offered there. When I can, I point out a connection to some aspect of grammar that we are learning. At the end of the day I was able to send them home and tell them to have a good din-din … especially if they were lucky enough to be having their dinner in a diner!
When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you also begin to swim against the current in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading is simply the act of unlocking a code – that code being the letters of our alphabet. In many such programs, teaching reading means beginning with isolated spoken sounds and matching them to written letters. That is followed by practice at “sounding it out.” The newest buzz word for this is “orthographic mapping.” The student is taught to attach a pronunciation to groups of 1-4 letters. These letter groupings are somewhat consistent, but there are a lot of them to know to automaticity in order for a child to read fluently. If “sounding out” a word can’t make it recognizable, it is deemed “irregular.”
Those in the front lines (tutors, interventionists, and teachers of pre-k, kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in these phonics-first models or have grown up in a system using these models, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling. Interrelated. Not one first in isolation, but the three facets of a word coming together to explain its meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. In this way the student is presented with a system right from the start. They are not taught specific strategies for reading that are then misapplied to writing. They are not taught that English spelling is crazy or that it cannot be understood. Instead the students learn from the start how speaking, reading, and writing can be used to represent our thinking. Much of the system we have is logical and predictable. (Many of the suffixing and other conventions are predictable. Learning that words are built from bases and that the spelling of bases within a morphological family is consistent is logical.) Students learn how to question what they do not understand. In fact their questions are encouraged and even celebrated, sending the underlying message that asking questions is key to learning. They are taught to see meaning relationships between words that share a base element, and that even when the pronunciation within that word family shifts, the spelling doesn’t. They are taught that all words have a structure, a spelling, and a pronunciation that can be explained and understood.
When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, many trained educators who have experienced the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” figure this too is full of promises it can’t fulfill. And when they hear there is no scope and sequence, they get downright jittery. How in the world will they know what to say and what to teach without a teacher guide to tell them? But that’s just it. Structured Word Inquiry is NOT A PROGRAM. It is a course of investigation driven by curiosity. Rather than a list of words to learn each week, there are principles to visit and revisit via words chosen that enhance curricular content, are someone’s personal favorites, or are suggested for any of a number of reasons. There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
Ponder that for a moment.
There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
In the education world, when a question is posed, everyone searches for an answer. They stop when they get one they are satisfied with, and the conversation moves on. But, especially in the sciences, don’t we accept that answers are temporary? That at some future time, some scientist may discover a different answer to the same question? A deeper understanding? THAT is the same mindset I use when teaching Structured Word Inquiry. Sometimes I refer to it as Scientific Word Investigation, which more appropriately represents the scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking that is integral to this.
Unfortunately, we live in an educational world in which most people have stopped wondering about a word’s spelling and have just fully accepted that our language has no rhyme or reason to it. The teachers think they are teaching how our spelling system works, but if they are really really honest with themselves, they will admit that they wish they could explain the spelling of words like of, come, have, does, they, laugh, give, the, and countless others that end up on Word Walls in far too many classrooms. Every year a child is in school, they encounter more and more of these words that the adults only know to shrug their shoulders at, reinforcing the idea that English spelling is crazy. It is amazing to me that we all accept (and yes, I accepted it too for many years) the idea that there is no explanation to be had for words that can’t be sounded out.
But why is it like this? Why aren’t the explanations accessible to teachers? Why have teachers been told instead to use “rules” that don’t statistically work? Not only am I referring to the old “I before E” rule, but also to the “Two Vowels Go Walking” rule. Did you know that the “i before e” part of that rule is only accurate 75% of the time? Or that the “except after c” part of that rule is only accurate 25% of the time? Or that when looking at the top (meaning most common) 2,000 words, the “when two vowels go walking” rule was found to be accurate only 36% of the time?
Here are two more “rules” that deserve to be banned. The first says, “When a stressed syllable ends in e, the long sound of the vowel is used, and the final e is silent.” It works for words like bike, pope, and rake, and doesn’t work for give, love, and move. Teachers will find it surprising that it is accurate only 68% of the time. (Those teaching with SWI will recognize a different way to explain what is happening there – it has to do with the function of the single final non-syllabic <e>.) The second rule says, “When there is only one vowel in a stressed syllable and the vowel is followed by a consonant, the short vowel sound is used.” This works for fix, hop, and cat, but not for mind, wild, and fold. This one too works only 68% of the time.
I find it astounding that creative people have used their talents to come up with these “rules” instead of demanding to understand why words are spelled the way they are! Is it really that there is no explanation? Hardly. Are the explanations really so complicated that teachers and children alike can’t learn or understand them? Again, hardly.
In my opinion, the three biggest problems are these:
The inaccuracies have been embedded in the teaching for so long that as a society we have become complacent. There is a general acceptance of the notion that English spelling is crazy and can’t be understood. We see this all over the internet. People print what they perceive to be the ridiculousness of English spelling on coffee cups and T-shirts, and everybody laughs. People offer proof of the craziness of English spelling by asking why ‘bomb’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘tomb’ or ‘comb’. But who said they had to? You can blame that expectation on teachers who first taught those people to read. They may not have said it specifically, but after having students complete worksheet after worksheet with cat, rat, sat, pat, tip, sip, rip, lip, and cup, sup, pup, children get the message. Words that have the same letter string will always rhyme. And no one ever tells them differently. Children learn what you tell them, but also what you imply.
Teachers cannot teach what it is that they themselves do not understand. This lack of understanding is so pervasive because there are very few colleges that equip teachers with orthographic understanding. The textbooks offered to future teachers of reading are smattered with the inaccurate rules listed above. It would be difficult indeed to sort out what is worth using with children and what is not. And the curricular materials school districts spend millions on every year are no different. Many teachers can sense that the materials are not helping their students, but don’t know enough on their own to understand specifically what parts are utter nonsense. All the company has to do is slap the words “evidence based” or “research based” on the cover, and the school districts are all in. No one in any of those districts is reading any of that “evidence” or “research” and the company counts on that. The companies simply put a new spin on the old content and market it. School districts see where there are weaknesses in their ELA scores, and want to find something that will help their teachers improve scores and ultimately assist their students in becoming better at reading and writing. They believe the companies know what they are doing. But those administrators, like the teachers, like the teacher-prep colleges, and like the curricular material companies don’t understand English spelling themselves. The curriculum companies get as creative as they can in presenting spelling as a fun activity, but the bottom line is that one cannot teach what one doesn’t understand.
Many children will learn to read even without understanding how our spelling system works. This is what keeps so many spelling programs and curricular materials in business. It is also what keeps so many well meaning teachers and their students in the dark. If a child can read, then what does it matter whether or not they understand a word’s spelling? There will always be spellcheck, right? This idea that reading is primarily about sounds represented as letters may seem to be so obvious when a child is learning to read. But as they advance through the grades and encounter longer and more interesting words, their missing understanding about the morphology and the etymology that affects the phonology is the thing that becomes obvious. Why don’t they know that some letters are etymological or orthographic markers, or that a word’s etymology has much to do with the graphemes that spell it? Why weren’t they taught that English spelling is a system and that each year their understanding of that system could grow to accommodate any newly acquired words? Instead it is assumed that if they learn to read in kindergarten and 1st grade, they will naturally maintain that reading proficiency and spelling proficiency automatically as they move through grades, even when the materials used include inaccurate information such as I’ve mentioned above.
An example of such nonsense was recently brought to my attention by a teacher using Words Their Way. Her students were asked to spot the <un> in unplanned, unprepared, unlock and uncle. Really? The <un> in three of those words is obviously a prefix. Why would ‘uncle’ be included here? Are the students supposed to think it also has an <un> prefix, or is this just an indicator that children are not being taught that a word has structure (is comprised of morphemes)? Then, within that same week, the same teacher told me about the task in which her students were supposed to spot the <re> in rethink, replay, reheat and reptile. She wondered what she was missing. Was there an <re> prefix in ‘reptile’? Of course not. This teacher was not missing anything, but her students sure were. They were missing the framework by which to understand the words they were being asked to read and write. They were missing being taught the structure (morphology), history (etymology), and using both of those to understand the pronunciation (phonology) of words. They were missing feeling comfortable to ask questions about things that don’t make sense (whether or not the teacher has a ready answer). The fact that students no longer ask questions about spelling by grade 4 should be a big red flag to teachers everywhere. Sadly it isn’t. The students have learned that the teacher won’t be able to answer or guide them to resources that would help anyway. They have no expectation that English spelling will make sense. That is sad. It doesn’t need to be that way.
My students don’t deserve to be limited by the boundaries of my own understanding.
As teachers, we often feel more effective if we can anticipate the questions our students might ask and be ready with an answer. When we can successfully do that, we feel knowledgeable and think we are presenting ourselves as knowledgeable to our students. But there’s a catch to all that. In many instances teachers create a façade of having background in content knowledge. They have learned to rely on a teacher manual more than they rely on their own professional expertise. I don’t really want my students believing that I know everything or that I have all the answers. There are only a few students who would be brave enough to ask a question in that situation. Most fear looking “stupid” by asking a “stupid” question in the presence of someone who appears to be an expert, whether or not that is actually the case. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your students don’t ask more questions, perhaps you have set up this atmosphere without realizing it.
Here’s an example of a well meaning teacher who tried to limit her students to her own level of understanding. Each year I coordinate a Science Fair at our school. I’ve been doing it for years. (The simple reply to why I do it is that there are always those students who shine at the Science Fair in a way that is unexpected by adults/peers in their lives. Those adults could be adults at school who only see certain aspects of the student (math, reading, behavior issues, etc.), or they could be extended family or neighbors.) Anyway, one year there was a colleague who was guiding her own students through the process of getting ready for the Science Fair. She approached me and asked if we might change the scope of the Fair just a bit. Because she didn’t feel particularly knowledgeable about many areas in science, she was suggesting that we choose ten topics. The students could then pick one of those topics for their Science Fair project. In this way, she could anticipate questions and most likely be able to answer them as the students progressed through the weeks of experimenting. It would make participating in the Science Fair more comfortable for her.
As much as I understood why she was asking this, I couldn’t agree to it. It might eliminate the possibility of a student following a passion or interest. We all know what happens when a student is forced to pick a topic they are not interested in. That is not a way to encourage curiosity and creativity. When one of my students picks a topic I have no background in, I tell them how excited I am that we will both be learning about the topic. In fact, I find myself asking lots of questions when the student and I journal. (Since I am now the lone science teacher at our grade level, journaling is how I communicate individually with the 75 students I currently prepare for the Science Fair.) My own curiosity is aroused when a student picks a project or wonders about something no one else has picked or wondered about in the last 25 years of Science Fairs! Instead of limiting the students to my own background knowledge, I embrace stretching my background knowledge to include something new, and I model the enthusiasm that goes along with learning! It is very similar to how my students and I study the English spelling system.
My students and I find a sense of relief in the freedom that comes with not having to have the one right answer to every question. And yes, I included myself there. I never realized the “must know the right answer” burden I was carrying until I began investigating words. Since that day, I have moved forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students. I have experienced the joy of scholarship, and that has fueled a passion for desiring to know more. My students see me as someone who has a deeper understanding than they do, but also as someone who is eager to learn more. I make a big deal when a student asks a question I never thought to ask about a word or about a spelling. I make an even bigger deal when it is a great question that I don’t know the answer to. Just as in my Science Fair example, I am excited to know that the student and I will both learn something useful! My students are fully aware that I don’t know everything about English spelling. I am not setting up any false illusions about that. Yet we all understand that I am in the best position to guide the inquiries until they learn the process for themselves. And that is my goal – to teach my students how to use SWI on their own to deepen their understanding of the words they wonder about.
Here’s another example of a teacher whose students are limited in their learning by the teacher’s background knowledge. This is something I read on a blog the other day. The teacher is a kindergarten teacher who is teaching her students to read. She is enthusiastic and sincere in wanting her students to succeed. The task she describes is that of teaching sight words. First she says the word in question. Then she has them isolate the sounds they hear. Then she shows them the letters that represent those sounds by writing them on the board (orthographic mapping). She begins with the letters that represent a pronunciation that is predictable. Then she unveils the letters that represent a pronunciation in a way that isn’t expected.
“Sometimes I like to get a little dramatic as I unveil the word. -Especially for really irregular ones…my students died laughing when I revealed the spelling for “of” and showed the shock and craziness of the word with my expressions.”
If she herself had an explanation for the spelling of <of>, surely she would offer it. Since she doesn’t, she teaches her students that English spelling is often worthy of shocked looks and crazy expressions. When I asked why she embeds this rather unhelpful implication in her teaching of reading and writing, she defended it by saying that it made the sight words memorable and that the learning was fun this way.
Now I completely understand the idea of making learning fun and memorable. That is something I reflect on often in my own teaching. But I have learned to draw the line when what becomes memorable is a false premise for future learning. I understand that her goal for the school year is to have her students read and write. What she is doing will probably help her succeed in that. The method she is using is called Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI). I have no doubt that students being taught by this method leave kindergarten being able to do some reading and writing.
So if a goal as important as reading and writing is met, what’s the harm in her method? Well, let’s think about this. If she is teaching all “irregular” words in this way, she is sending the specific message to her students that many spellings are crazy and cannot be understood. And she is implying this over and over and over. By the end of the year, their overall impression of our spelling system is set. If the first grade teacher is also unequipped to explain words deemed “irregular”, then the students will receive a second year of subliminal messaging that “English spelling is unreliable and can’t be counted on to make sense.” What happens in second grade? More of the same? At what point are the students given the “straight skinny” about their spelling system? At what point do they meet a teacher who is willing to encourage their questions about why words are spelled the way they are and show them how to seek a deep understanding, knowing that what we understand is easier to remember? And if those students are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who can actually explain “irregular” spellings, along with supplying logical and predictable features of our spelling system, how on earth does that teacher have the time in one year to reset the attitude their previous teachers have nurtured? This is not a hypothetical situation. It is what I face every fall with each new fifth grade group.
Like I said before, I believe this kindergarten teacher’s desire to nurture successful readers is sincere. But in a really huge way, isn’t she limiting their understanding to her own? It is obvious that EBLI doesn’t offer any explanations for the spellings of sight words. If it did, this teacher would use them. Her heart is in the right place when it comes to doing right by her students. But how possible is it to be truthful right from the start with beginning readers when the teacher is missing so much herself? I often ponder this very idea because for years I didn’t question the idea of irregular words either. I just accepted that irregular words are words that can’t be explained and need to be memorized. This teacher is making that memorization fun, but in the end it is still just memorization. There is no understanding being offered. And I see a huge difference between “memorize this” and “understand this.”
Now let’s think for a moment about how a word ends up in the disgraceful “irregular” pile. It has to do with the alphabetic principle. We teach students that certain pronunciations will be spelled in certain ways using certain letters. When a word’s spelling deviates from that, it is labeled “irregular.” Some teachers (trying to make learning memorable) even shame the word by calling it “misbehaving.” There are even those who go so far as to put the word in “jail”. I love the fact that teachers are some of the most creative people I have ever met, but I also cringe when they use that creativity to disguise what it is that they themselves do not understand.
Unfortunately, too many teachers do not think young children are capable of understanding much about spelling. Their excuse is that we need to limit their cognitive load. Giving them a reason for a spelling, or planting any seeds about how fascinating and logical our spelling system actually is is out of the question in their minds. In my opinion, when adults decide what a child’s capacity for learning is (without having met the child), that child is instantly disadvantaged. If the only way to teach a child to read and write is to also teach the child that our spelling system is absurd and/or crazy, then I say find another way to teach reading and writing.
The number of classrooms in which children are being taught to read using SWI principles is growing every week. Age appropriate explanations are provided to children in regards to any word’s spelling. Right from the beginning, the children are taught to look for consistent spelling patterns, morphemes, and to recognize word families. They get lots of practice at recognizing grapheme/phoneme correspondences. They are encouraged to notice things and to ask questions. They enjoy making “word family” games for their classmates. And at the end of the school year, they are reading and they are writing. But most importantly, they are moving on to 1st grade expecting to read more, write more, and understand more about our language. No one has to back up the bus and convince them that spelling is in fact logical and fascinating. There is only a moving forward motion in their understanding! Each year they revisit important principles and ask the questions that deepen everyone’s understanding. They pull words out of context, investigate them at whatever level is appropriate, and notice other words that are related morphologically before putting the words back into context and discussing how understanding the word deepens its meaning within that context. Some of the very same things taught or practiced in an SWI classroom are also what is being taught with a method like EBLI. The major difference is the underlying belief that connects each year’s learning.
Imagine I had the choice of sending my young child to one of two classrooms. In both classrooms, there is a strong chance that my child would learn to read and write. The difference in the classrooms is this: In classroom #1, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is illogical and a lot of the times so crazy you’ll want to roll your eyes at it. They will memorize spellings without much understanding of why the word is spelled that way. They will be taught that some words have explainable spelling patterns and that many do not. They will practice sounding out words, and when a word can’t be sounded out, everyone will laugh at the word. In classroom #2, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is reliable and logical. They will immediately begin learning that words have structure and how understanding that fact will help them with building related words and spelling those related words. They will learn a “spell it out” strategy in which they identify bases and graphemes within those bases at the same time they are learning the word’s pronunciation and its spelling. They will learn that words have histories and that some words are very old. They will be encouraged to ask questions about what they notice about a word’s spelling. The teacher will help the students think through those questions.
I find it hard to believe people when they imply that it’s not possible to have the students leave kindergarten with the impression that there’s a reason for every spelling.
More and more teachers are proving the opposite of that every day. If you are interested in finding out more about what happens in those SWI kindergarten classrooms, I encourage you to participate in study groups with Rebecca Loveless and Pete Bowers. They have specifically worked with kindergarten teachers and their students.
It would be unrealistic to think we can teach without imposing (to some extent) the knowledge limits we each have. But isn’t it our responsibility to constantly reflect on how our own limits affect our students? I don’t like to think that I’ve invited my students into my yard (if we can think of my background knowledge as a yard with fences) and that they become prisoners there. Or that if they ask questions about what is beyond that fence, I would need to make up cutesy explanations to keep them from exploring what I myself am not comfortable exploring. I would rather think of this as me inviting them into my yard, and then when they ask questions about what’s on the other side of the fence, me going with them and modeling how to search for understanding. In the process I would be showing them how to keep expanding their own yard by continually moving those fences. When I am willing to either step outside my “fence” or to keep extending it, we all benefit as learners.
And here’s another thing that doesn’t often get considered. Never forget that students are as deep-down satisfied to prove truths about our English language to themselves as we are! When you spend year after year in classrooms in which the teacher is the expert, and you and your classmates are the buckets to be filled, this kind of investigating can be exhilarating! Students find it refreshing, really, to be given the tools and the opportunity to raise a question and then to prove or disprove it to themselves. My role becomes that of a guide, steering the questions the students have during an investigation back on them as often as possible, but also realizing when they have reached a point where they are truly stuck.
I might also add that I know of several adults with dyslexia who have shared with me their experiences of learning to read in school. They were frustrated much of the time because they were asked to remember bits and pieces without a context. Being told that our language was absurd or crazy made learning to read and write even harder because in effect they were being told it didn’t make sense. Being given a solid understanding of the interrelationship of morphology, etymology, and phonology, however, has turned a truly laborious task into a fascinating one. I’m not saying that their dyslexia has disappeared, but I am saying that they no longer feel as if they are staggering in the dark. Those adults ask lots of questions and think through lots of their own hypotheses thanks to finding Structured Word Inquiry. And every one of them is sharing their understanding with children. They, more than almost anyone else, really get what a difference understanding the spelling system can make.
Doing what is right for children isn’t easy when you are swimming against the educational current. When you have the guidelines of Structured Word Inquiry, when you can see for yourself what is true, and when you can provide evidence to any doubtful package-loving administrators, you do so, and then you just keep swimming. It’s what you do.
You know how sometimes you look at a word you’ve written hundreds of times, and all of a sudden it looks totally strange? That happened to a colleague today. There was a math story problem that the whole class was working through. The problem had to do with a school bus – more than one to be exact. I don’t know what calculations were required to solve the problem, but I do know that writing the plural of bus is what stumped the teacher. At first she wrote ‘busses’ on the board. But then she couldn’t stop looking at it. “That doesn’t look right,” she thought out loud. “But yet it doesn’t look completely wrong either.”
The students (who tend to love correcting adults) shouted, “There’s only supposed to be one ‘s’ in the middle!”
As the teacher rewrote the word and changed it to ‘buses’, she agreed with the students. “Yes, that looks right.” But instead of turning her attention back to the math part of this, she paused and asked the following question. “But why is it spelled with only one ‘s’?
The responses she received were similar to the responses I get when I ask a question about spelling. The students have been taught that spelling is a reflection of pronunciation, so they don’t think of letters in a word as being there for any other reason. For example, when she asked why it was spelled with just one ‘s’, the students tried desperately to explain that there is a pronunciation difference between ‘busses’ and ‘buses’. Hmmmm.
Lucky for me, I had lunch with this teacher and she shared the discussion they had. My first reaction was that the suffixing convention tells us to double the final ‘s’ on the base and spell this plural as ‘busses.’ But we both acknowledged that we spell it as ‘buses.’ My next thought was that perhaps this was a case of American English spelling versus British English spelling. But I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t hide how delighted I was! When you least expect it, an opportunity to learn something you didn’t even know you didn’t know pops up! I love it! I couldn’t wait to see what I could find out. I went to my computer and searched “buses or busses?”
What I found was at Merriam-Webster. I read that until 1961, ‘bussed’ was the preferred spelling. So! Both spellings have been used! I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to cause the spelling to change. As often happens in moments of great discovery like these, the school bell rang. I had to go to the lunchroom to pick up students. I would have to read the rest of the information, when I returned. The group of students who had been in math with this teacher, would be in my room after lunch. A perfect opportunity to discover things and build understanding together!
Once the students and I were all settled, I wrote <hopping> on the board. I asked for the word sum. Someone offered, “h-o-p + ing.” Then the same person added, “but you double the <p>.”
“Why? Why does the <p> get doubled?”
“Because there’s no <e> like there is with ‘hope’.”
To illustrate for everyone what this student was saying, I wrote the word sum for ‘hoping’ on the board as well. We reviewed the suffixing convention that calls for the vowel suffix <ing> to replace the single final nonsyllabic <e>. Then I directed everyone’s attention back to the word sum <hop + ing>. “There is no single final nonsyllabic <e> on the base, and because there isn’t, we need to pay attention to what is final on this base.” As you can see, I underlined in blue the single final consonant on the base and then I underlined the single vowel in front of that consonant. I explained that the reason we double the <p> is because we are adding a vowel suffix to a base which ends in one final consonant and has one vowel in front of that consonant.
What happened next was kismet. A student in the back raised her hand and asked, “What about a word like buses?” Perfect! They were still thinking of the conversation in their math teacher’s room.
“How do you spell that?”
“It’s spelled b-u-s-es.”
“Interesting. Look back at ‘hopping’. Don’t we have the same situation here? Like we did with <hop>, we are adding a vowel suffix to <bus>, which has one final consonant and one vowel in front of that consonant. What do you think the word sum would be for that word?”
“It would be <bus + es>.”
“If we use the same suffixing convention we used with <hop>, how should we spell the plural of ‘bus’?”
“It should be b-u-s (double the s)-es.”
I wanted to make sure everyone understood that we begin by following the reliable suffixing conventions. When we find a word that doesn’t seem to be following those conventions, we are ready to ask why not. I wrote the two spellings on the board and we wrote analytic word sums. It was easy to write the one for ‘busses’ because we could explain the suffixing convention that would be applied. When we thought about a word sum for ‘buses’ it was as if the two morphemes coming together repelled as two magnets might. We needed to understand why the final <s> on the base did not get doubled. It was time to show them what I found out earlier.
A quick look at Etymonline revealed that the word ‘bus’ is really not all that old. It was first attested in 1832. It was an abbreviated form of ‘omnibus’ which was attested only three years earlier than that. An omnibus was a four wheeled vehicle that had seats for passengers. That’s not so different from what we think of as a bus today. It was a vehicle for all as the Latin <omni> “all” suggests. Below is a picture of an early horse drawn omnibus.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=553158
According to Merriam-Webster, by the 193o’s this word’s popularity started to bump heads so to speak with the already existing word ‘buss.’ Never heard of it? Me neither. It took me quite by surprise! It is much older than ‘bus.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘buss’ was first attested in 1567! As a noun, a buss is a loud or vigorous kiss. It is thought to be based on the sound that a loud or vigorous kiss might make!
As I was reading a 1996 use of this word in the OED, I realized what the problem would be for these two words.
“1996 Entertainm. Weekly 5 Apr. 96 Even after Maddie and David consummated the 1985–86 season with a passionate buss in a parking garage, viewers were not satisfied.”
In the above sentence, the singular form of buss is used, but what if more than one kiss was given in that parking garage? The season would have been consummated with passionate busses in a parking garage! Someone reading this would have to stop to wonder if these were passionate kisses or passionate vehicles! It made me laugh thinking about how confusing this could be.
I altered the quote above so that it was more appropriate for my students. I said, “Imagine how confusing it would be if I said that I saw someone give someone else two busses in the parking garage.” It could mean someone received two kisses, or it could mean they received two vehicles!
We wrote the word sum for ‘busses’ and compared it to that of ‘kisses.’ We noted that <es> was the suffix used and why that made sense. We laughed when thinking of what a single <s> suffix would look like when joined to this base or even how it would be pronounced.
Someone asked if perhaps the word ‘buss’ was pronounced differently than ‘bus.’ What a great question! It was easy enough to find at the OED. I wrote the IPA below it in the word sum. Then I looked up ‘bus’ in the OED and found the identical IPA representation. Cool.
So in the end, we realized that when seeing the word <busses>, a person wouldn’t know whether this was <bus (s) +es –> busses> or if it was <buss + es –> busses>. In the end the plural forms of each look the same even if the bases aren’t the same. Interesting stuff! This takes me back to the Merriam-Webster article that stated that up until 1961, the preferred plural of ‘bus’ in their dictionary was ‘busses.’ After that the preferred spelling became ‘buses’ so these two words would no longer be confused.
If your students are like mine, they will enjoy the humor in the following.
Even if you love your bus, it may look weird for you to buss your bus.
You can give me a hug, but please no busses.
No busses on the bus, unless it’s a buss from your parent.
Not too long ago I asked my students what they do when they are unsure of how to spell a word. I wanted to know how many strategies they had been taught that might help them. Here is what they told me.
Sound it out.
Make up a rhyme or song to help remember how to spell words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
Ask someone to tell you how to spell the word.
Spell it some kind of way and then don’t use it after that.
If someone suggests that you look in a dictionary, groan loudly because you know you will spend a lot of time at the dictionary and never find the word anyway because you don’t know how to spell it.
We haven’t equipped them very well, have we? I was recently having a discussion with someone who teaches children who are just beginning to learn to read. She told me that “sound it out” is a strategy for reading, not for spelling. Hmmm. When are the children ever told that? When are the people who teach the children ever told that? What are children offered instead? If it is recognized by both adults and children that “sound it out” isn’t reliable, what else are we teaching in its place?
This is an important question to ask. I need to know how well equipped they are for what I will be asking them to do all year — which is to write with minimal spelling errors. Those students with remarkable memories smile, feeling quite confident that they are pretty good at spelling. Those who can’t seem to remember the order of the letters in a word (even when they’ve written and rewritten the word twenty times), feel the opposite. They feel frustrated and dumb. It’s not uncommon to find out that those students started hating writing long before now – especially if they can’t read their own writing! I have a student currently who hates to go back and fix up his spelling so much that he insists on getting the right spelling for each word as he writes each sentence. As you can imagine, his ideas don’t flow very well in his writing. His mind is on spelling more than it is on the ideas he is trying to express. He has entered 5th grade absolutely hating writing because of spelling.
It pleases me to no end that I can offer my students real help. This is the year that they will learn a strategy that will actually help them understand spelling. And when they understand a spelling, there is a larger likelihood that they will remember the spelling of the word. They will learn how to spell words and not remember working at it to do so! Sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it? Listen to these two students.
The first student clearly expresses that learning to spell a word and then having to attach meaning to it is completely different than learning to spell a word based on that word’s structure and the denotation of its base(s). Her second grade memories illustrate the two things as separate activities. By studying orthography and noting the sense and meaning that is inherent in the base(s), she understands the spelling of the word AND its meaning, realizing that the meaning is represented in the spelling. Learning the word’s structure and meaning, and then noting the connections of the word’s base(s) to other words that share that base, is a revelation to anyone who has wondered about the English spelling system. It is as powerful for adults in remembering a word’s spelling and meaning as it is for children.
The second student in the video clearly expresses how effortless remembering the spelling of a word can feel. Notice that I did not say “memorizing a spelling.” That is what students do prior to coming to my classroom. It happens when teachers don’t have an understanding themselves, yet need the students to spell words accurately. I’m pretty sure that a large number of you (I’m including myself in that group) grew up memorizing spelling without any further understanding of that spelling. You can’t imagine what more there is to learn until you actually engage in investigating a word for yourself. The second student in this video has found this type of looking at words to be so helpful! As she says at the end, she learned how to spell the words she investigated and she didn’t even know she was! Every year my students tell me they know they are better at spelling than they were at the beginning of the year. If they feel empowered, isn’t that what it’s all about?
This next video features a student who has never struggled with memorizing the spelling of words. So how does studying orthography benefit her?
Even when our goal of having students know the spelling and meaning of a word is met, there is much we have left out! Here is a student that can easily memorize both the spelling and meaning of words she encounters. But even she recognizes that by studying orthography she is engaging in the learning in a way that she has not been asked to do before. “Here’s a list of words. Memorize them and then write out definitions.” Sound familiar?
I find that students are engaged in the word inquiries we conduct because they are leading the investigations. They are not being asked to regurgitate information that I collected for them about words. They are not matching definitions I wrote to words that I want them to know. They are creating hypotheses about a word’s structure. Then they are using resources (authentic, reliable, and not necessarily made for kids) to understand the information for themselves. Yes, I need to guide them in their use of those resources at first. But it doesn’t take long before they are independently finding out the story and word sum of a word. And in the course of doing so, they are understanding and learning its spelling.
Recently I saw a post from Haggard’s Hawk . (Click on the name to visit the Home Page. Haggard’s Hawk posts things on Facebook, Instagram, blog, and Twitter. I saw this on Twitter.) I find Haggard’s Hawk to be a fascinating source of word etymology. Paul Anthony Jones has written eight books that you can also check out at the link I have provided. So here is a screen shot of the post I saw:
My point in sharing this post is that until I looked at the etymology, I thought of the words <bereavement>, <bereaved>, and <bereft> as meaning someone is feeling sad because a loved one died. Adding the sense of “plunder” and “rob” amplifies (in a way) what bereavement means. My mother passed away several years ago now. Describing my bereavement as the feeling one has when being robbed of something is so much more accurate than describing what I was feeling as “sad.” Sad is used generically for hundreds of situations that happen every day. Being robbed of someone has that sense of unexpectedness and outrage (in a way). It truly feels as if I was robbed of having my mother in my life. My life has not been destroyed because of she died, but I do feel a sense of my life having been plundered by it. I’ve had to try to put things back that were set askew. But something big will always be missing. And there’s that sense of having experienced being robbed.
Do you see how looking specifically at a word’s base element and its denotation can bring depth to a word? Having spent seven years learning about words with students, I am only more excited each and every day. I will never know the story of every word, but I will always be delighted to know one more. In the classroom, it is like the student in the video says, “Mrs. Steven learns it along with us. She just doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s really fun.”
So let’s get to the nitty gritty of this post. I teach my students to identify the structure of a word. I teach them that words are made up of a string of morphemes. Each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the entire word. The morpheme that carries the main sense and meaning of the word is the base element. A word that has more than one base element is a compound word. Most people understand this. The part they might not understand is that not all bases are free bases. What I mean by that is that not all bases can be words on their own. A base like <hope> is a free base because it is a recognizable word on its own. We could add a suffix, but we don’t have to in order for it to be a word. A base like <fer>, however, is a bound base. We never see it as a word on its own. We see it when it is paired up with affixes. You’ll no doubt recognize it in <offer>, <different>, and <conifer>. It has a denotation of “carry.” If I was guiding an investigation of <fer>, I would definitely encourage my students to find related words as I have done here. Then I would ask them to tell me how that sense of “carry” is there in the word. Sometimes it is a strong sense in the modern word, and sometimes it is faint. But it is always there. Check out this student’s enjoyment of learning about these connections.
This is another example of a student who didn’t necessarily struggle with memorizing spelling words. Yet here she is, excited to really understand that words have a structure and a history, and that by using the sense and meaning denoted in the base along with the sense that affixes contribute, she can understand the meaning represented in the word’s spelling! This is her “Eureka” moment and she looks forward to making the same comparisons and connections with each word she investigates!
In order to strengthen each student’s ability to create a logical hypothesis, we do the following. I write a word on the board and ask the students to think about it for a minute. Then I ask for volunteers to write a word sum hypothesis on the board beneath it. Here is an example:
As each hypothesis is added to the list, I will point out certain things we are seeing. With these three hypotheses, I noticed that all three have identified <ex-> as a prefix. I will now ask students to brainstorm other words that seem to have an <ex-> prefix. When students have collectively thought of three or more, then we decide that identifying <ex-> as a prefix is a logical idea seeing as we know it to be a prefix in other words.
Next I would point to what has been identified as suffixes. In two of the words <ion> has been suggested and in one word <sion> has been suggested. Now I ask the students what they think of those two suggestions. Can they think of other words that have either an <ion> or <sion> suffix? Since we recently took part in an activity in which students were focused on finding certain suffixes, a few of the students recognized that <-ion> is a suffix in <adoption> and in <action>. We thought of <expression>, but realized that even here, the suffix would have to be <ion> since the <s> before the <ion> in that word is part of the stem <express>.
That left us to consider whether the first or second hypothesis was more likely based on what we knew. No one was familiar with <pl> or <os> as morphemes on their own, but that doesn’t mean that neither of them is or isn’t a morpheme. Next we brainstormed words related to <explosion>. The students thought of:
Our related words list gave us evidence that the <ex> was a prefix because we could see that it could be replaced with an <im> prefix. We also saw the evidence that <ion> was a suffix because it could be replaced with <ive>. We were pretty sure that the base in this word was <plose>. A look at Etymonline revealed that this word’s furthest back relative was <plodere>. When I see that final ‘ere‘ on a Latin ancestor, I recognize that this was a Latin verb and the ‘ere‘ was an infinitive suffix. When removed, it reveals the stem that came into modern English as a base element. You have probably already noticed, however, that when we remove the ‘ere‘ we are left with <plode> and not <plose>. These are alternant spellings of the same Latin verb meaning “drive out with clapping.” You see, this verb was originally used in the theater. I bet you can imagine an audience exploding with applause. By the way, <applause> and <applaud> are related to these. They continued to be used in a theater sense, and <explosion> and <explode> began to be used in other situations as well.
The evidence we gathered supported the word sum <ex + plose + ion>.
Giving the students opportunities to hypothesize word sums encourages them think about many of the words they encounter in and out of school! It is not uncommon to hear from either students or parents about word conversations that took place in the car or at the dinner table! Here’s another example from last week. I put the word <constantly> on the board. Here are the word sum hypotheses the students created:
Because we had done this activity several times before, I did not begin by sharing what I noticed about these hypotheses. Instead I asked the students what they noticed about the three word sum hypotheses. “What do you see that you agree is a logical hypothesis for either an entire word sum or part of a word sum.” The first person noticed that all three hypotheses suggested that <ly> was a suffix. Other students easily thought of words with an <ly> suffix (lonely, quickly, happily). It may have helped that we looked at a list of words with <ly> suffixes the day before. And that may be why I chose a word with that suffix for today. A little reinforcing is always a good thing!
Then someone noticed that two of the hypotheses had <con> as prefixes. So we did some brainstorming again and thought of concert, construction, contract, concussion and congress. The students weren’t sure whether <con> really was a prefix in concert and congress, but they could think of replacing the <con> with <de> in <construction> (<destruction>), removing the <con> and adding an <or> suffix to <contract> (<tractor>), and replacing the <con> with <per> in <concussion> (<percussion>).
I specifically asked what everyone thought about the second word sum – the one that read <constant + ly>. I wanted to point out that when you absolutely cannot point to anything you recognize as a possible morpheme, then this would be a good choice. It is far better to “under-analyze” than to “over-analyze” without evidence. When you first start this activity with your students, you may notice that they assume that every two letters is a morpheme. Sometimes it is obvious to me that they are breaking the word into syllables, but sometimes it’s not even that. They just have no idea what’s what yet. They do not recognize enough affixes or bases. That is why I choose words that reinforce affixes we’ve already noticed. That is also why I show them how to think logically as they are thinking through the hypothesis they intend to propose.
The last two things to consider then are the possibility of a <stant> base or an <st> base and an <ant> suffix. My first question to the class was, “Can you think of any words with an <ant> suffix? Can we provide evidence that it might be a suffix?” After some thinking time someone offered up <pleasant>. Then the words <migrant> and <pollutant> were named. That was enough evidence that the <ant> might be a suffix. But then that left an <st> base. Is there such a thing? I thought back to the moment when the student wrote this particular hypothesis on the board. Another student kind of sniggered from his seat as if suggesting an <st> base was going too far. It does sound improbable, doesn’t it? We were now at the point when it was time to go to a resource. I called up Etymonline and shared it on the Smartboard with everyone. I searched for <constantly>. This is what came up:
The students were so perplexed. “What? Why does sourball come up?” I told them to read what they were looking at and then to raise their hand when they had an idea why this word came up in the search. It didn’t take long at all before they saw the word <constantly> in the entry for sourball. I then told them how glad I was that this happened. It just shows us that when we list a word in the search bar, the program looks for that word in all the places it exists on the site!
My next question was what to do next? How should I alter what I have in the search bar so we can keep going with our investigation? As if in harmony, most all of the students responded with, “Take off the <ly> suffix.”
As we read through the entry together, I pointed out that this word was first attested in the late 14th century. It is obviously a very old word. Then I went on to say that at that time this word was used to mean “steadfast, resolute; patient, unshakable; fixed or firm in mind.” I paused to think out loud and to model what I hope they do when they read during research. “Is that how we still use this word? What is something that we might describe as constant?” After a moment of thought someone said that a noise could be described as constant. So we talked about a dog who is constantly barking or an alarm that is constantly going off earlier than it should. Then we thought of the 14th century sense and meaning of this word – unshakable, fixed. We knew that we still use this word in the same way. It was time to keep reading.
Next we noticed that this word was either from Old French and had the same spelling then as we have today, or it was from Latin constantem with a sense and meaning of “standing firm, stable, steadfast, faithful.” As I kept reading, I saw the words “assimilated form” and pointed that out. “Look here! The word is from the assimilated form of com meaning ‘with, together.’ Then it says, ‘see con-‘. What do you suppose that is evidence of?”
Again they all responded, “A <con-> prefix!”
“Now keep reading. Do you notice how this is from an assimilated form of com + stare “to stand?” Do you see that? Well, let me tell you about that Latin verb. I happen to know it is a Latin verb because I recognize the infinitive suffix on it. You know how we have certain suffixes that we recognize as suffixes we use with verbs? You know, like <ing> sometimes and <s> sometimes? Well in Latin, one of the suffixes found on the verb in its infinitive form is an ‘-are.’ When we remove that suffix from this Latin verb, we see the Latin stem that came into Modern English and is now a base element.”
I wrote the Latin verb stare on the board and boxed out the infinitive suffix so the students could see what I was doing. In this way they could also see what would be left without the Latin suffix.
There was a bit of excitement mixed in with a bit of “I don’t believe it” when they realized that the Modern English base is indeed <st> and has a denotation of “stand!” The next step, of course, was to put together what we knew the base meant along with the sense carried by the prefix. We had a literal sense of “stand together.” Looking back at the way <constant> has been used in the past, several students right away spotted the words “standing firm” and “fixed.” Again we could relate these senses to how we use the word <constant>.
It was time to draw everyone’s attention back to our three hypotheses. It is always important to point out that there aren’t any right or wrong answers on the board. There are only hypotheses that can be supported by evidence and hypotheses that can’t. Nurturing that understanding builds an atmosphere in the classroom that is free of judgement. That is huge! In this case, there are two that we can support with evidence, and one that we can’t support with evidence. But even the one we can’t support with evidence had some logical and evidence-supported morphemes in it!
So as we were wrapping up this activity, a student in the back row raised her hand and asked, “What about pros and cons? Is the <con> in this same prefix, or is it a clip of something?”
The smile on my face was immediate! What a thought provoking question! I paused for a bit before saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like some time to think about this. Maybe others in here feel the same way. Would you please write your question over on the Wonder Wall? We’ll look at this tomorrow. In the meantime we can all have some time to think about it.”
When this group of students came in the next day, I started by asking how many had given this some thought. At least eight hands went up. I was impressed. One student explained that she had laid in bed the night before trying to think of what <pro> and <con> might be a clip of. Another student wondered if <pro> was a clip of proactive and that maybe <con> was a clip of conflict. Interesting. Someone else piped up and offered that <pro> might be a clip of proficient.
At this point, I said, “Let’s back it up a second and make sure we have a sense of what we mean when we use this phrase. Is there another phrase that is sometimes used in place of this one?” Students replied with:
“How about advantages and disadvantages?”
“Or pluses and minuses?”
Next we thought of a scenario in which we might make a list of pros and cons. Examples from our discussion included deciding whether or not to get a new pet and convincing parents to start/increase an allowance. Now I felt like we were ready to see what Etymonline had to say. We began by looking up <con>.
Immediately it was agreed that this fit our search. The first words “negation; in the negative; the arguments” were exactly what we thought of when we thought of the “cons” of a proposal. As we continued to read, we were surprised to see “mainly in pro and con.” I paused to think aloud again. “So this use of <con> to mean something negative is mainly used in the phrase pro and con. Interesting! And look! It’s been around since the 1570’s! Isn’t it surprising that this phrase is that old?” But little did we know that the most interesting part was yet to come. The very next words told us that <con> was indeed a clip. It was a clip of contra “against.”
Before we used the link to find out more about <contra>, we finished reading the entry and saw the direction to compare <con> with <pro>. We decided we would come back and do that after we looked at <contra>.
What we found at the entry for <contra> was that this is a free base with a denotation of “against; on the opposite side.” What really caught my eye was the list of related words. I chose three to talk about, thinking that those three might be familiar to my students. The first was <contradict>. I explained that the bound base was <dict> “say.” The example I used was, “If I were to say that today was Friday and someone were to say it was Thursday, I might tell them not to contradict me.”
The second word was <controversy>. To illustrate this, I brought up the current issue of climate change. I told them that this is a controversial issue because some people believe it is a problem and some people have the opposite view. They do not believe it is a problem. Since both sides are feeling strongly, this becomes a controversial issue.
The last word we spoke about was <contrast>. A student shared that when we point out contrasts we are pointing out differences. Great! But here was an opportunity I was not going to miss. “Does anyone have a hypothesis about what the word sum for <contrast> might be? Think about the entry we are looking at.
A student raised his hand with movements of urgency. “<contra + st>!” Eyes lit up everywhere.
I suggested we look at the entry for <contrast> to see if we could support this hypothesis with evidence. Sure enough! This word is from Latin contra “against” and Latin stare “stand.” How cool that we found another word with an <st> base already! It was great to be able to reinforce how I knew that the base was <st>.
It was time now to go find out about <pro>. I took them back to the Etymonline entry for <con>. I wanted to point out something. Right behind the link to “Compare pro,” there was a set of parentheses with (n.2). I asked, “What do you supposed that means?” The silence that followed made me glad I had asked. It is opportunities like these where I can make their individual visits to Etymonline more productive. I asked if anyone ever noticed that sometimes a word is listed twice in a dictionary because it has two different meanings. Many had. That was enough to trigger some understanding that (n.2) meant that <pro> is a noun and we would be looking for the second entry.
Even with pointing out that we would be looking for the second entry, several students shouted out that <pro> was a clip of <professional>. So we read together the second entry and realized that “a consideration or argument in favor” is the sense we use in the phrase pros and cons. Further in the entry we found corroboration that pro and con is short for pro and contra “for and against.” We even noted the Latin spelling (pro et contra).
I ended our discussion by sincerely thanking the student who had brought the phrase pros and cons to our attention. What a delight to find out this information about it! At first we wondered if <pro> was a clip of either proactive or proficient, but we found out that it wasn’t a clip at all. Instead, <con> was a clip of <contra>. We now understand <pro> to mean an argument in favor of something and <con> to mean an argument against something. And yes, some may have had a sense of that before we started, but I do believe there is a difference between knowing something superficially and knowing something in a way that it didn’t before.
Within 24 hours of this discussion, three more word quandaries appeared on our Wonder Wall:
– Is influence related to influenza?
-Why is there a <u> in some spellings of <color>?
-What does “hemmed and hawed” mean?
Looks like I won’t ever have to wonder what we should talk about next! These students are in orthographic orbit!
There are so many interesting articles I’ve read in my life. So many books I’ve picked up that seemed like something I’d be curious about. So many assigned readings that I dutifully read. But there were words I skipped over in those articles, in those books, in those assigned readings. I knew I was doing it. But why? I skipped over words that looked so foreign to me that I just knew they were meant for scientist eyes only or professionals in a specific field. I couldn’t imagine they were meant for a regular kind of reader like myself. But I don’t skip those words anymore. And my students don’t have to skip words like that anymore either. We know where to look and what to look for! We know to seek out the structure of the word and then to find out how each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the word. We are gaining access to all sorts of words we used to skip over! Let me illustrate what I mean.
A brown marmorated stink bug hitched a ride on my dog the other morning. Once the stink bug was safely in our home, he jumped ship and proceeded to make its way across the floor. My husband, a retired entomologist (do you ever really retire from this?), carefully scooped up the stink bug and called me from the other room. After taking a close look, he handed the stink bug to me and I took it outside and set it free. (That’s what happens at the home of this retired entomologist – all bugs venturing in from the great outdoors are returned to the great outdoors!) While I was gone, my husband was busy online, looking for a picture and a bit of information about this bug. (That’s another thing my scientist husband does – verify his identification of any bug he comes across!)
It’s actually quite a coincidence that he found this particular stink bug. Just a few days earlier I had been staying with a friend a few states to the east. We were sitting on her deck when the very same kind of stink bug landed on the table. “Those things are such a nuisance!” she said. “They collect on the back of the house and garage and are so hard to control!” When I mentioned this to my husband, he said that he had seen quite a few in our neighborhood as well. Well I now knew that to be true!
So here it is. The brown marmorated stink bug. That is its common name. Its scientific name is Halyomorpha halys. As far as the rest of its scientific classification, it belongs to the Class Insecta, the Order Hemiptera, and the Family Pentatomidae. Apparently it was accidentally brought to the U.S. from either Taiwan, Korea, China or Japan. (It probably got here by hitching a ride the same way the one we saw today hitched a ride into the house.) The distressing news is that this species of stink bug is invasive. It is so adept at hitching rides, that not only is it spreading on each coast of the U.S., it is appearing in countries around the world and is therefore having a global impact! The problem with this particular stinkbug is that it wreaks havoc on tree fruits and vegetables as they are developing. Not only are the costs because of crop damage immense, the cost for control of this stinkbug are immense as well. People often find the brown marmorated stink bug around their houses or outbuildings in the fall because it is looking for a place to overwinter. If you see these bugs around your outside walls, you’ll know what they are up to!
So why am I sharing this information? What relevance does it have to what many of us do with children every day? Well, as I was reading this information, certain words were popping out at me – words that not long ago I would have skipped over, not recognizing their significance to my overall understanding. Maybe my students do the same kind of skipping words. Maybe yours do too. Here’s something we can do to reduce that urge. In the same way I will point out the words I might have once skipped over, we can model and encourage our students to do the following instead.
1. Underline words that you are unfamiliar with. Think about each one. Is there anything you DO know about this word?
Some words I would pick out of the above information would be <marmorated>, <Halyomorpha>, <Hemiptera>, <Pentatomidae>, <wreaks>, and <havoc>. Even though I know what it means when something “wreaks havoc” on something else, I am now curious to know more about these two words.
The first one that I focused on was <marmorated>. What is that? If brown is an adjective here, then <marmorated> is most likely an adjective as well. But what does it mean? Looking in a dictionary seems a logical next step. But these days there’s a bit of fun I like to have first. I like to hypothesize the word’s structure.
The word <Halyomorpha> is this bug’s genus name. But it wasn’t randomly chosen. I know that. When examining unfamiliar organisms, scientists refer to the classification system. If the organism is truly one that hasn’t yet been identified and named, the scientists does so. There are some criteria the scientist follows, so I know it is not random. I want to understand more about the sense and meaning its morphemes contribute to the finished word. At first glance, I’m wondering if the second base is <morph> and has to do with shape or form.
The word <Hemiptera> refers to the Order this bug belongs to (as far as its scientific classification). I have looked at this word before. I recognize the second base as <pter> “winged,” and the first base as <hemi> “half.” I want to review these and remind myself what “half-winged” has to do with stink bugs.
The word <Pentatomidae> is the stink bug’s Family name (again, as far as its scientific classification). I am immediately wondering if the <penta> is the same <penta> we see in <pentagon> and is referring to five. I also have a suspicion about the <tome>. If it is the same <tome> that is in <entomology>, then it has something to do with cut or section.
The word <wreaks> is a word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “bringing about.” I have it on my list because I’m interested in its history.
The word <havoc> is another word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “a mess, a calamity.” I have it on my list because it doesn’t feel like a native English word to me. I’m curious about its origins.
2. Write a word sum hypothesis and then begin researching. Perhaps it will be helpful to find some etymological information about it. Perhaps looking up the word in a modern day dictionary will be helpful as it will help you know if you are on the right track as you search for the ancestor of each base.
My first thought is to hypothesize the structure of an unknown word. By the end of the year, this first step becomes a favorite activity of my students – thinking about and making a hypothesis. In this word, it might be logical to identify the <-ed> and <-ate> as suffixes. When I do this, I have a better idea of how to find this word at Etymonline if the word (spelled as I found it) does not appear there. My hypothesis would be <marmor + ate/ + ed –> marmorated>.
My next step is to look at Etymonline. The word <marmorated> is not listed. I remove the <-ed> suffix and search for <marmorate>. It is not listed either. I start typing m.a.r.m.o.r.a. … and <marmoreal> appears as a suggestion. I search for that, thinking that this word shares my hypothesized base. I find the entry:
I was curious about other words we use that might have this same base. I looked at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher, but didn’t have much luck. I knew my next place had to be the Oxford English Dictionary. I love that resource because it lists words that have existed but are not necessarily being used anymore. And sure enough, there are a number of entries related to <marmor>. The oldest (c. 1480 and now obsolete) is marmor “marble.” The most recent (1948) is marmorealize. It is used when something should be immortalized – as it might be with a marble statue or marble inscription. The OED identifies this word as one used very infrequently, so it would be no surprise if you’ve never heard of it. In fact, it is suggested that this word might have been spelled to resemble the structure of memorialized, but never caught on the way memorialized has.
I found 12 entries related to <marmor>! Two other interesting words were marmoraceous and marmotinto. I like marmoraceous because, well, it’s fun to say! I can easily imagine how it could be used. I might go tell a friend that a stone I found on the beach was marmoraceous (resembling marble). I like marmotinto because I discovered that it was a decorative art. It was coined in 1844 but has since become obsolete – a lost art form. “A decorative process in which sand of various colours is distributed in marbled patterns on a surface and fixed, and perhaps given a smooth finish, with gum.” I found the pictures below at Wikimedia Commons. If you are interested, there were a few more there as well.
“The Hermit”(59cms by 44cms) is a Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel(1762-1830), probably an early work by this Georgian sand artist using a mix of white lead and gum arabic to stick the sand to the baseboard – hence the blackened colours of the background. Collection: Brian Pike, sandpainter.
Picture of Balmoral castle using the marmotinto style, the art of creating pictures using coloured sand or marble dust.
Here’s something cool. As I was looking to see if I could find what <Halyomorpha> denotes, I found an article at Bug Guide called, “Halyomorpha halys (Stal) (Heteroptera: Pentatomidae): A polyphagous plant pest from Asia newly detected in North America by Hoebeke, E.R. and M.E. Carter. 2003. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 105: 225-237.” What I think is particularly cool is the word phrase “polyphagus plant pest” in the article title. The word <polyphagus> is another one of those words that is easy to skip. But it doesn’t have to be. The first morpheme <poly> is the Hellenic form for “many” (as opposed to Latin <multi> “many”). The second base <phage> has a denotation of “eat.” We see it in the word <esophagus> “the passage that carries and eats”, <coprophagy> “eats feces,” <lotophagi> “lotus eaters,” and anthropophagous “cannibal, man-eater.” Phew! Not necessarily a discuss-over-dinner kind of a list, but still interesting! To get back to the word <polyphagus> in the phrase “polyphagous plant pest,” we can see that this stink bug is a pest because it eats many kinds of plants instead of just one. That makes it harder to control. Understanding <polyphagous> enriches what we understand about this stink bug’s diet!
So back to my search for what <Halyomorpha> means. This one stumped me. I could find a lot of references to this insect genus name, but I was not able to find a source that defined it. I still thought that the <morph> part had to do with a shape or form. That would make sense. But I couldn’t find <haly> or <halys> (the species name) in any dictionary. If I googled either one, the entries took me back to information about this insect. It was when I was at a site that listed all of the different species of the Halyomorpha that it hit me. I noticed that different species of these stink bugs were different colors. So I thought to myself that if the colors changed among the different species, what didn’t? What did all of these species have in common? That was when the word <halitosis> popped in my head. Whoa! Could the <hal> in <Halyomorpha> be the same <hal> we see in <halitosis> “bad breath” and be representing the ‘stink’ in stink bug? That sure seemed logical!
I found the Latin verb halare “be fragrant, emit vapor.” It seems so obvious. I know that this word could be a hybrid word, meaning that the two bases are from two different languages. In this case, <hal> is from Latin and <morph> is from Greek. But I am nagged by the <y> that follows the <hal>. Is it part of the base? If it is, have I found the right base? If it’s not, why is it there? I went to my copy of Lewis and Short to find more information about halare. As I expected, it means to emit vapor or fragrance. I kept looking through the lemmas, searching for <haly>. I found <Halys>, which is the species name of this stink bug. I was interested to know more about it as well and its relationship to the genus name Halyomorpha. It seems that Halys was a river in Asia Minor – now known as the Kisil-Irmak. It was also a man’s surname. The first entry for Halys wasn’t very helpful, but the second one gave me pause for thought. Scientists name things after themselves all the time. Perhaps this genus and species is named for the scientist who first identified and named it! Maybe that’s why I am having such a difficult time finding information on the etymology of this word!
For now, I am willing to say that I have two hypotheses. One is that the <hal> in Halyomorpha is from Latin halare “be fragrant, emit vapor”, and the <morph> is from Greek morphē “shape, form.” This makes sense to me. The other is that the <haly> in Halyomorpha is the surname of the scientist who first identified and named this insect. This also makes sense to me. The important thing here is that I have not closed the book on this word. I will continue to be interested in it, knowing that there is evidence out there that I have not yet seen, and when it comes my way I will be ready for it! In a very big way I am delighted that I did not find the evidence that supported my thinking with this word. This kind of thing can happen. It reminds me of what I often say to my students, “Just because I don’t know why this word is spelled the way it is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. It just means I haven’t found the right evidence yet.” There’s no need to get frustrated or to get mad at the word and call it something offensive such as “irregular or misbehaving.” Instead, I get to keep my thinking on it open. I get to keep it on my radar so to speak.
As I mentioned earlier, I have looked at this insect name before. I know that <Hemiptera> literally means “half wing.” In this situation that means that part of the wing is membranous and the other half of the wing is not – it is leathery. The first part of this word is <hemi> and means half. You have probably seen it in the word hemisphere, which means “half a sphere.” The second part of this word is <pter> which means “winged.” You have no doubt seen it in the words pterodactyl and helicopter (although you may not have recognized it in helicopter).
I found the following information at ThoughtCo. The <penta> in this word is from Greek pente “five,” and the <tome> in this word is from Greek tomos “section.” Cool. Here is the evidence to support what I was first thinking about this word. I’ve seen <penta> in words like pentagon (five angles) and pentathlon (athletic race with five events). I remember seeing <tome> in words like entomology (because of distinct body parts, it looks like they have been “cut in” between each section) and atom, which means “not cut” (the smallest particle that cannot be cut further and still have the qualities of that element).
According to ThoughtCo., scientists disagree as to why this particular insect is classified as Pentatomidae. Some say it is because its antennae are divided into five sections. Others say it is because of the body shape of the insect – that it has five sections. Looking at the stink bug, they both make sense to me!
According to Etymonline, the verb <wreak> is from Old English wrecan (c 725) and at that time was used to mean “avenge, drive out, punish.” The sense of “inflict, cause damage or destruction is from 1817. A rarely used related word is wreaker. That, of course, is the person who does the wreaking. Someone who is wreakful is someone who desires revenge in a situation. Another rarely used word is wreakless. Someone who is wreakless is unavenged or unpunished.
Once again, Etymonline reveals some fascinating information! This word was originally part of the expression cry havoc, which meant “give the signal to pillage!” Now if you’re like me, you want a clearer idea of what it means to pillage. In the 14 c. it was used to mean “plunder, loot, ill-treat.” So havoc was the signal given to the soldiers to seize the plunder. Can’t you almost hear the cry and picture the frenzy that would follow?
After checking with the OED, I found out that the sense of pillage and plunder has slowly been replaced with the sense of “destructive devastation,” and in a weaker sense, “disorder and disarray.”
3. Sit back and think about what you now understand better about what you were reading and also what you love about investigating words.
Let’s begin with what I better understand about the marmorated stink bug. If I were to describe it, I would not hesitate to use the word marmorated, knowing that it refers to the marbled pattern on the insect. I can picture the insect’s back having no distinct repeatable pattern, just as marble has no distinct repeatable pattern. It belongs to the Hemiptera Order and the Pentatomidea Family. If I know that, I also know that it has wings that are half leathery and half membranous. I also know that this insect has five segments on its antennae and five segments on its back (which is shaped like a shield). I know that it is a polyphagous insect, meaning that it feeds on several different kinds of plants. That, of course, makes it harder to control. It’s damage is widespread in a given area, and this insect is reproducing and enlarging its areas faster than we’d like. In other words, it’s invasive. When it is described as wreaking havoc on fruit and vegetable plants, that means that these bugs are destructive and devastate the fruit and vegetable crops. The harvest is compromised greatly and the financial loss to the grower is huge. It may be named (Halyomorpha Halys) because of the bad fragrance it gives off, but that is just one theory I have. It may also be named after the scientist who first identified it.
Isn’t it amazing that when we pull a word out of context to give it a closer look, we can’t help but understand the context better?
Now let’s take a moment to think about how joyous it is that skipping words in a passage is no longer something anyone need do. I can so clearly remember the days when students were asked to look up the words they didn’t recognize in a text. Of course, they pretended they knew them so that they wouldn’t have to struggle to find the word in the dictionary. “Please, Mrs. Steven, just tell me what the word means. Don’t make me look it up! Please!” If I turned them down, I would find some students copying the papers of other students. Using the dictionary was a task that wasn’t fun – especially if you couldn’t remember the spelling of the word! But think about it. All the students were doing was copying down some definition that didn’t make sense to them. They copied it because they were asked to. In many cases, they didn’t read it as they copied, and they certainly wouldn’t have understood it if they had. This was busy work to them. Very few learned what words meant and how to use them by doing this.
With the kind of word inquiry we do now, the students find out so much more than just a definition. The goal is to find out the word’s structure and its story, and that is what the students find interesting. When they are engaged and interested in the research, it is not busy work. The dictionaries in my room have become dog-eared. I couldn’t be happier about it. They are used everyday by many students. Because the students know what they are looking for and why they need it, they willingly use it as part of their research. Imagine all the reading that is happening during this research!
Another wonderful thing that happened during this inquiry is that I couldn’t find a definitive explanation for the word <Halyomorpha>. When teachers are beginning this work in their classrooms, it is one of the things they fear most. “What if I can’t explain a spelling? What if I don’t understand what’s going on with a spelling?” When this happens, you model for your students what to do. You find what you can and make whatever observations you can. You make a hypothesis or two and then put it aside. It is a far better idea to teach students to go as far as they can based on the evidence collected, than it is to allow them to make wild guesses based on their hunches. Hunches and skipping words are a thing of the past. Research, hypotheses, collecting evidence, and making observations are what leads to understanding in the present.
Yet another satisfying aspect of this work is the way you inquire into one word, but learn several others along the way. We are always stretching our understanding and broadening the sense we have of a base element. If I hadn’t been investigating Halyomorpha, I wouldn’t have run across polyphagous, which I was able to connect to esophagus and coprophagy. (I once had a dog who ate her feces. Gross!) I also made connections to pentagon, pentathlon, entomology, and atom by looking closer at Pentatomidae. And let’s not forget the beautiful and intriguing art pictures made with sand and marble dust! I appreciate knowing that art form existed. It must have taken a long time to complete one of those and to keep the grains of sand and marble dust from mixing!
Say you did this with a student. Say they picked out some words from the text and with your guidance did what I have done here in these three steps. When finished, you place the list of words in front of them and have the student explain the text again, including their newfound understanding of each of the words.
The students were not quite seated before the whispering began.
“Yeah. Go ahead, Ben. Ask her.”
“I’ll ask if you don’t want to!”
“No, Ben should be the one to ask. He’s the one who brought it up to begin with.”
As you can imagine, my interest was piqued. I looked at Ben whose cheeks were bright red. “Ben? Do you have a question for me?”
“Yes. Do you think <squad> is related to <quad>?”
I hope you can picture just how big my smile was at that moment! This was the first orthographic question of the year that was inspired by something happening outside of our classroom! I was delighted, and I hoped my smile conveyed that! “What a great question! Tell me more. What were you talking about when this question came up?”
Ben began by explaining that in math class they were discussing polygons. Specifically they were talking about shape families. When they got to quadrilaterals, the teacher asked if students knew any other words with <quad>. As students named words, it was the consensus that words with <quad> have something to do with “four.” When Ben asked whether or not <squad> was related to <quad>, the teacher suggested they bring that question to me. Perfect!
The first thing we did was to recreate the list of words the students had thought of earlier in math. They included:
Then I asked, what is the spelling they have in common? What specific string of letters do you see in each and every word?
The first response was <quad> (no doubt because that was what they had been talking about earlier). I asked them to look again and more carefully. That was when several hands shot up at once. “I see q-u-a-d-r!”
Great! Now I underlined the <quadr> in each word so we could look at the rest of each word.
Before I could even ask a question about this word, a student raised their hand to say, “The <i> could be a connecting vowel!” Awesome! I didn’t expect that, but it is true! It could be! Next I asked if anyone recognized any suffixes. Someone called out <er> and <al>. Great! Those might indeed be suffixes. They often are. (Notice that instead of saying, “You’re right,” or “Sorry, you’re wrong,” I’m using words like “might” and “could.” At this point we are doing some out-loud thinking about this word. We will consult a resource when we have had a chance to think through our observations.)
At this point I asked if anyone knew what <lateral> meant. No one did. So I said, “What if I told you that a fish has lateral fins? Does that help?”
There was a moment of hesitation as students mulled over this idea. Then someone said, “Side fins?”
“Yes! Do those of you who love to play football know what a lateral throw is?”
“Yes. It’s when you throw the ball in a backwards or sideways direction.”
“Right. So we’re seeing a sense of “side” in both when we refer to a lateral fin and a lateral football throw. So now tell me what a quadrilateral is.”
Several students at once responded with, “Four sides.”
Right away I wanted someone to tell me what quadruplets were. Everyone seemed to know that it was when four babies were born in a single birth. None of us knew much about the <uplet> part, but had heard it as part of <triplet>, <quintuplet>, <sextuplet>, <septuplet>, and <octuplet>.
Having identified the base as <quadr> made the rest of this word recognizable. I could just ask, “What is a quadrangle?” And several students replied that it was a shape with four angles. Instead of quickly moving on, I wondered aloud whether a quadrangle and a quadrilateral could refer to the same shape. Hmmm. After a bit of thought, the students agreed that a shape with four angles would also have four sides, and a shape with four sides would also have four angles.
The students quickly named <million>, <billion> and <trillion> when thinking of the second part of this word. I went on to name <quintillion>, <sextillion>, <septillion>, <octillion>, <nonillion>, <decillion>, <undecillion>, and <dodecillion>. (I love knowing this list because I can see the same <sept> in <septillion> as I do in <September>, the same <oct> as in <October>, and the same <dec> as in <December>.)
The students weren’t as familiar with the use of this word. I explained that if an area were to be split into four areas, one of the areas would be called a quadrant.
At this point a boy raised his hand and stated, “I don’t think <squad> fits with these. None of these words begins with an <s>.”
I loved knowing that the original question sat in his head as we were discussing all the words with <quadr>. I replied by saying, “You might be right, Sam. But then again, we can often be surprised by what we find. I don’t know the answer, but it’s almost time to look.”
But there was still something the students were wondering about. “Isn’t quad a word all by itself?”
“Yes. I think you’re right. I wonder if it isn’t a clip of one of the words we’ve looked at.”
Then I went on to explain that there are other words that had been clipped from a longer version – words like auto from automobile and flu from influenza. This was the perfect time to go over to my desk and pull up Etymonline on the Smartboard. I looked up <quad>. The entry was very interesting. It seems that <quad> has been a shortening (or clip) of several longer words over the years. In 1820 it was a shortening of <quadrangle>, which at the time referred to a building on a college campus. In 1880 it was a shortening of <quadrat>. In 1896 it was a shortening of <quadruplet>. We were all fascinated to read that a quadruplet originally referred to a bicycle for four riders! It was only later on that it referred to four young at a single birth. Lastly, <quad> was a shortening of <quadraphonic> in 1970. I remember my older brother talking about wanting quad speakers to go with his stereo! One of the students brought up one other more recent use of <quad> as a clip. They mentioned quads as in leg muscles. We decided that in that sense, <quad> must be a clip of <quadriceps>. This is an example of a word that needs to be in a context in order for us to know what it is referring to.
Once we had looked at <quad>, it was time to look at <squad>. This was really fascinating! In 1640, this word was used to mean a small number of military men.” That was a familiar use of the word for everyone. It is kind of what we were expected. As we read on, we noticed this word had been in French as esquade, Middle French as escadre, and Spanish as escuadra or Italian squadra where it meant literally “square.” Notice how the spelling in French, Middle French and Spanish began with <es> and the Italian spelling began with <s>. The next interesting information was this word was from Vulgar Latin (the Latin spoke by the everyday people) and possibly spelled (not for sure – notice the asterisk next to the spelling) *exquadra meaning “to square” from Latin ex “out” and quadrare “make square.” Ben, the boy who originally asked the question noticed the connection between a square and four right away. Another student pointed out the <quadr> spelling in the Latin word quadrare.
All in all, this glorious discussion took about 25 minutes. I enjoyed identifying what we knew already, and what things we could relate to other things without running immediately to a resource. There is such value in recognizing the connections one already knows. This is how the students will strengthen their confidence in their ability to connect one word to another.
What an opportunity to point out that both<quadr> and <squad> began in Latin, but had different journeys into Modern English. Both were used in French, but <squad> was also used in either Spanish or Italian and that different journey has been reflected in their spellings. It turns out that they ARE related! They are related etymologically, but because they do not share spelling, they are not morphologically related.
When we decide to explore any of the sciences, we expect to dive deep. We expect to examine what others have already discovered, we expect to find out things we didn’t know before, and we expect to be enlightened by those findings. If we are testing some established scientific principle or a student hypothesis about the way things work, we think like scientists. We follow some form of the Scientific Method. We do this so that some one else might repeat our experiment if they wanted and get the result we got. In other words, our results would be verifiable because our methods were consistent.
This same idea is at the very core of Structured Word Inquiry. It is inherent in its three basic principles.
Many people think they are “doing SWI” because they teach prefixes and suffixes, because they teach Greek and Latin roots, or because they have some information on a word’s etymology ready for their older students. If you are not treating word study as a science, you are not “doing SWI.” If you are using a boxed program, you are no doubt following someone else’s idea of what is appropriate for your students based merely on their age. How can that possibly reflect a student’s natural curiosity and support that student’s flow in thinking, questioning, proving/falsifying, and understanding? It can’t. It can’t because it cannot possibly follow all three principles of Structured Word Inquiry.
So what does it mean to treat spelling/word study as a science? How is that different from what is being done in other practices? What are those three principles and why are they so important?
Here they are. These are the three guiding principles of Structured Word Inquiry. They are something I keep in mind as I plan the starting point of each inquiry with my students. Just to be clear, these are not principles I thought of. These are the principles Dr. Peter Bowers developed as he was seeking to further define Structured Word Inquiry and what its implementation with students means exactly. I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘inquiry’ and even ‘structured’ is becoming part of more and more literacy programs. But what exactly do those words mean in those contexts? What do those words mean in the context of SWI? That is what Dr. Bowers set out to clarify with these principles.
The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
If you are not familiar with Structured Word Inquiry or where it started, I encourage you to visit Dr. Pete Bowers’ website. A much more thorough accounting, including links to research that supports SWI can be found here at WordWorksKingston. Structured Word Inquiry describes the instruction Dr. Bowers used when he ran a grade 4-5 morphological intervention with John Kirby in 2010. It is important to note that he was “using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction.” After running the intervention and writing about their findings, Dr. Bowers knew how important it would be to carefully describe the underlying and crucial supports of Structured Word Inquiry.
The three guiding principles are different than the four questions that guide an actual structured word inquiry. They are foundational. They must be adhered to in order to conduct a structured word inquiry. Without the principles, as I’ve said earlier, this is just another program that becomes automatic and routine over time when compared to the unpredictable discovery and inquisitive nature of true structured word inquiry.
This idea of treating spelling as a science probably sounds weird because we have been taught that there is nothing more to know about a word except how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means. You may be wondering what there is to investigate. What would we even be looking for? But here is where structured word inquiry differs from other programs or boxed kits. The point of structured word inquiry is to show the child how to use scientific rigor and resources to prove to themselves why words are spelled the way they are. You won’t find other approaches explaining the why. They may explain what is, but not WHY what is, is. That takes orthographic science!
Let’s take a closer look at each of these important principles.
1) The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
I remember reading this principle for the first time and thinking, “Whatever. How can that be?” I listened to and read everything else being presented to me and kind of ignored this principle. I ignored it because of the dissonance it created in my head. Thinking back on my own schooling, I recall all the time I spent memorizing a word’s spelling, all the time I spent looking up definitions of words, and finally, all the time I spent figuring out how to remember which word went with which definition. Now I was supposed to believe that the spelling of a word represents its meaning? “Whatever. How can that be?”
Fully believing in this principle has happened slowly for me because, well, old beliefs are sometimes embedded deeper than we think. Over and over I saw the proof, but still looked askance at this principle. How could it be true? Because I was wrangling with this principle, it was always on my mind. Without intentionally doing so, I began to collect my own bank of evidence.
What I thought I knew was that spelling was about pronunciation. I grew up being told to sound out words if I asked how they were spelled. As a teacher I’ve told hundreds of students to do the same. Sitting back and reflecting on all of the times a word couldn’t be successfully spelled in that manner – by sounding it out, was Exhibit A. If spelling was there to represent pronunciation, why were there so many exceptions – so many words that couldn’t be spelled correctly by being sounded out?
Exhibit B was the nagging sense of failure I felt in 18 years of teaching for not being able to provide my students with any real understanding about spelling. Every book I used, every piece of curricular material I was handed focused on spelling and its correlation to prominent vowel sounds in words. I always ended up saying, “No one knows why words are spelled the way they are. You’ll just have to memorize them.” Dictionaries were dreaded resources in my classroom. No one wanted to tackle one of those. Students begged me, “Just tell me how to spell it. Please?” When I asked colleagues for help, I was made to feel as if I was the problem – I wasn’t teaching the spelling curriculum as presented – with fidelity. But I read through the teaching guide many times. The understanding I longed for wasn’t there.
The third piece of evidence (Exhibit C) was something pointed out to me. (And ever since, I can’t un-see it). It was the fact that pronunciation in word families shifts all the time. Just think of how we pronounce courage and courageous; demonstrate and demonstrative; real and reality; heal and health; please and pleasure. If spelling was primarily supposed to help with pronunciation, why wasn’t each pair of these words spelled differently? A suffix was added and the pronunciation changed! Take note that the basic part of each word in these pairs is spelled the same regardless of that change in pronunciation. This particular exhibit of evidence is compelling to me. It reminds me of the genus and species names that scientists use. There are common names for most organisms on this earth, but those vary from location to location (kind of like accents and dialects with language). By using the genus and species name for an organism, scientists have a common language. They know which organism is being referred to with certainty. The fact that we don’t shift the spelling of a word every time we shift its pronunciation is heavy duty proof that the spelling represents something other than pronunciation. It represents the meaning that we (no matter where we live, no matter what our dialect or regional peculiarities) seek in order to communicate with one another.
Of course, there is more evidence out there. Exhibit D might be the Homophone Principle which states that when two words are pronounced the same but mean different things, wherever possible they will have different spellings to represent those different meanings. Think of the homophones blue and blew; right and write; flower and flour; see and sea; poor and pour. We recognize that although each set of words has the same pronunciation, the two words are not spelled alike to mark their different meanings! I’ll say that again. Their spelling indicates to the reader that they do not share meaning.
These days when I am explaining this principle to others, and they give me that look that I recognize as hesitance, I present the above evidence. Because it is the most compelling to me, I make sure to present what I have explained as Exhibit C. I use examples such as the word family for <sign>. There is the obvious lack of pronunciation of the <g> in family members <sign>, <assignment>, and <signer>, but then the <g> IS pronounced in <signature>, <designate>, and <signal>. Beyond that, the <s> has an unexpected pronunciation as /z/ in <design> and <designate>. Once more, the spelling is the consistent piece because it is representing the sense and meaning of the base! All of the words in this family have a sense and meaning of “a mark with some special importance.”
2) The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
The first time I read this principle I was ready to accept it. I was almost relieved. For years I had been hoping that English wasn’t as illogical and unpredictable as people kept saying (continue to say). You see, I love words. I always have. I just haven’t understood them in the way I do now. Now I have images and stories and depth and connections that I never had before. In the same way that I delight in turning that first page of a new book, I now delight in looking at a new word or finding out something new about an old word.
Knowing that English spelling is well-ordered and reliable enough to face the rigors of scientific investigation brings an amazing sense of calm and eagerness to my classroom. There is no dread in knowing we are studying words on a certain day. There is only joy and anticipation. The frustration and distress disappeared because the judgement regarding being right or wrong about a spelling disappeared. It may sound weird to hear me say this, but the focus with structured word inquiry isn’t completely on the spelling. As we are understanding the spelling, as we are seeing these reliable and well-ordered conventions of English spelling over and over, it feels to the student as if their spelling has significantly improved without them having to focus on it specifically. They are never asked to memorize the spelling of a word, yet they are able to spell words that they haven’t been able to spell before. For some it has felt effortless. That ability comes from the fact that they now understand the word’s spelling. In the past, when they have been asked to memorize spellings, there was no rhyme or reason for them. It was a string of letters. Words with several vowels were particularly hard because no one could satisfactorily explain their order.
An especially liberating truth inherent in this principle is that calling words irregular, oddball, tricky, devil or the like doesn’t make them so. Every time I hear someone call a word tricky or say something as ridiculous as “This word is misbehaving and needs to be put in jail,” I shake my head. Here we have adults who don’t understand the spelling of a certain word, making fun of the word for that. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t understand your spelling. It doesn’t fit what I’ve been taught about words.” So instead of questioning what they’ve been taught, they single out the word and call it names. I’ve been in the classroom a long time. Think about what some children do to other children who are in some way different than themselves. Instead of trying to understand the difference, one child makes fun of the other. Isn’t that just what is happening here?
3) Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
The idea of investigating words as a scientist might is so appealing to me! After all, I have organized our school’s fifth grade science fair for 25 years now. I know a thing or two about using a consistent framework for a scientific investigation. A scientist wouldn’t dream of drawing conclusions based on someone else’s say so. A scientist conducts their own research, and keeps careful notes to track their investigation. A scientist is thorough and looks at a problem from many angles, seeking to have a broad understanding before zeroing in on a specific aspect. By using the four questions of structured word inquiry, spelling scientists follow a similar deep dive to understand English spelling.
The importance of this principle must not be underestimated. If it is true that scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works, then I want my students to be able to use scientific inquiry to see it for themselves. I need to teach my students which tools to use and which questions to ask. They need to know how to use the relevant information in the resources to provide evidence to either support or falsify their hypotheses about English spelling. This is where boxed programs or scripted curriculums fall short. Completely and unfortunately short. The questions are already posed … by the creators of the program. The students are walked through the lessons and asked to answer questions they didn’t ask. Such programs are not designed to accommodate the unpredictability of a child’s path of thinking. Structured Word Inquiry on the other hand embraces and celebrates that unpredictability. Teachable moments present themselves every day and in meaningful ways. The students are engaged and fascinated because they are part of what drives the learning. They are not passive receivers of lessons who are told what to think and then given time to memorize things that don’t make sense to them.
A huge part of my learning community is my classroom. In this room I am a passionate learner. I think out loud at times to model the types of questions that might help my students during an inquiry. I guide the students in the right direction when I can see they are stuck. And as often as possible, I turn the “figuring-out part”, the “decision-making-based-on-the-evidence-collected part” of the investigation back on the students. The inquiries carried out by the students yield learning for all of us. When that happens, we all feel exhilarated.
Students find it refreshing that I don’t have a teacher manual and as a result, don’t always know the answers. I often tell them that my very favorite questions are the ones I can’t answer. In a very big way, it lifts the burden that most children feel about guessing what the teacher wants you to say in a given discussion. It lifts the burden of having to have a right answer when joining a discussion. Students no longer worry about being embarrassed for giving a wrong answer because if we use scientific inquiry, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no judgement attached to a thought shared. Instead, students propose hypotheses about word structure or other aspects of English spelling. There is only what we can prove, what we cannot prove, and what we can falsify. This is an amazing difference from what is experienced in other classrooms (from what was experienced in my own spelling classroom prior to 2012). It provides an atmosphere in which there is a willingness to participate and ask questions. You see, so much of the learning takes place during those classroom discussions and during presentations of a particular investigation. THAT is when information is settling and synthesizing with other information, forming or strengthening an existing understanding. For the last two years, this has been our classroom mantra:
When you are looking for answers, you are looking to settle your question. Once you find that answer, you are done with the question. You don’t go back and ask it again. You move on. This principle of using scientific inquiry demands that we not seek answers. We seek to understand something. The question remains open. Even when we are satisfied with our understanding, we are open to noticing something that will bring that question back to the foreground. We will reconsider what it is we understand and how the new information affects it. With other programs, children are filled with facts as if they are buckets. There is so much the student is asked to memorize whether it makes sense to them or not.
Structured Word Inquiry gives the student the consistent procedure, the framework of these principles, and the opportunity to see for themselves – to prove to themselves – to build that understanding for themselves. There is no program or approach or preset curriculum that can do that. This principle of using scientific inquiry is what sets Structured Word Inquiry apart. It is what disqualifies it from being called a program or an approach. It is simply scientific inquiry. It is the same scientific inquiry that led to us finding out the world is round. It is how we found out about gravity, germs, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, the mating dance of Sandhill cranes, the phases of the moon, the layers of the atmosphere, and the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle. Each discovery or understanding began with a question and a scientist who pursued it. And the pursuit was teeming with scientific thinking.
It is the way we can learn about English spelling too. Just make sure your toes are soundly buried in the sands of these three Structured Word Inquiry Principles before investigating anything.
I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time. My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings. But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time. There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals. There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers. Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book. (I recently read this book to my granddaughter. It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)
There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics! One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.
Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.
What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.” The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.” See what I mean? How on earth can a letter misbehave? It’s an inanimate object! And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either. (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it. Then I wait. I wait for the thing that will never happen. The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name. The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter. See? A letter will never misbehave either.)
A letter WILL however, represent something. If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share. We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know! But there is! And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that! Except …
The authors are painfully unaware of it. The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous. The information they share about each word is interesting. Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works. We don’t need more of that. What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better. To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way. To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.
Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it. It IS unexpected, isn’t it? What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.” What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced. After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter. In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced. I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark. But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.
The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation. I think that is the beauty of this book. It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.
As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait. Our minds raced ahead trying to guess. Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book. The students were ahead of me with that thought.
“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>? I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book? I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”
And then they were off!
P is for Pterodactyl
Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>. Let’s start with what Sam presented. He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>. He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.” The <o> is a connecting vowel. All parts of this word are from Greek.
He also wrote the word in Greek with my help. I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.
Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). This is the first year my students have had access to the OED. They were able to find many related words by using this resource. The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used. If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon. Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives! This poster was created by Sam. What I love about it is the key at the bottom. Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”
For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.) He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.” Here is a picture. The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo. I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!
Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>. (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon. The second part in this compound word is <anodon>. It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk henteeth.com
Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!
Now let’s look at Jude’s work.
Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word. He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>. Find it HERE. In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology. Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.
After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix. Here is a larger version of it.
You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word. I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix. The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel. In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.” You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings. An example would be a flea.
Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.” The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.” It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images
As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t. This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry. There is no expected “complete” answer. There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task. An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.
One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced. Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first. On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true. The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced. Interesting observation, am I right?
So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?
M is for Mnemonic
Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>. He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.
He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.” He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.” That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different. Some had <mnes>.
He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>. He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.” You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster. I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more. Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.
Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>. This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.” In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.
The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced. But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced. It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!
P is for Pneumonia
Alright, you got me. There weren’t two “P is for …” pages. But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>. The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>. She was excited!
As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them. She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs. It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.
When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.” She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air. She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works. I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class. She chose this one. It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.
Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>. I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould. Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word. The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.” The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.” The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.” But what does the word mean? How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?
Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Cally read that this word is pretty rare. It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old. I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning. You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed. So did it die before or after birth? While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.
When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her. Together we googled this word. Here is the first entry that popped up. There were several others on the same page written in French as well. As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.
“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded. “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”
So we looked at the OED. The entry there listed this word as French. It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.” My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank. We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank. Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper. But then I noticed something else.
“Cally. Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition. Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”
I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>. This is what we found:
“Oh! These two spellings are the same suffix! Cool!”
“Yes. Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other. In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”
Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment. Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>. There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words. There is a meaning difference as well. They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>. In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word. The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>. But then there is <communique>. We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>. It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly. In yet other word families they may not be at all. Hmmmm. This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!
One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one. It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>! After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history. At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia. At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.
P is for Psychic Pterodactyl
I know, I know. This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word. But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity. I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced. Look at what she found!
Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling. One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.” In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found. You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word. That’s not very helpful. All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms. The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.
For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>. The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>. This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person. A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.” A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.” What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!
Another on that list is <psychosis>. I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar. We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis. Notice anything about all of those? Yup. They all have something to do with a medical condition. That is what the <-osis> brings to the word. Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).
The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well. The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young. Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic. Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads. The colors were always bright. I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times. But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”). In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.
Love Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use
Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.” The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>. In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced. In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.” Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>. The pronunciation was /kh/. You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.
The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.” She did a much better job of defining the words on this list. The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>. This is a compound word. The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>. The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.” I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.” This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)
One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>. What I like about this word is that it is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel! What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.” If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.” This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems. This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.
**** Final Thoughts
I could continue. Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.” This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful. Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed. This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four. The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.
Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:
Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not. All have delightful tales to tell. I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way. It is not the Russian spelling. Why not? Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>. Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s? And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>? Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding? Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling. I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.
So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules. I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving. I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway? Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound? This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth! This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!
Something quite amazing and wonderful happened the other day. But before I tell you about it, I need to tell you what led up to it.
In the past few weeks, students have been working on several orthography projects. Prior to that, they had been working in groups to create podcasts. As each group finished their podcast (based on a word investigation), they needed something new to investigate while the rest of the groups were still working. Instead of assigning the same activity to all who were ready for something, I mixed things up. In that way, when the students are ready to present, we will have a variety of orthographic concepts to be talking about. Here are the projects I assigned:
1) I let some students choose a word and independently investigate it. This has become a favorite activity among my students. They enjoy the freedom of choosing their own word and then seeing what they can discover. I like this activity because they get practice using etymological resources (reading and pulling information pertinent to their investigation). They are able to choose whether to use Mini Matrix Maker or create their own matrix. Each finished poster has the same types of information as all the others, yet has been touched by the individual student’s creativity. Here are some examples of finished work:
2) Some students were asked to think about an individual grapheme and the phonemes that can be represented by it. They collected words to illustrate that one grapheme can represent several different phonemes. Here are some examples of finished work:
3) Other students were paired up and asked to investigate assimilated prefixes.
I assign a particular prefix to a group. I tell them the assimilated forms I want them to look at. For example, in the picture below, this group looked at <ob->. In addition to words with <ob-> prefix, they collected words that had the assimilated forms <op->, <oc->, and <of->. Before I sent them on their way to find the words, I had them bring a dictionary to my desk so I could show them how to prove that the two initial letters were a prefix and not just the first two letters of a base.
My favorite dictionary for use in the classroom is the Collins Gage Paperback Dictionary. Let’s look at the entry for <occupy>, and I think you’ll see why I like it so much. First of all this dictionary gives the IPA. Not all dictionaries do. Then there are definitions with example sentences. Near the bottom of the entry are related words. And the last thing in the entry is important etymological information. So <occupy> is from Latin occupare “seize”; <ob-> “up” and capere “grasp.” I specifically show the students the prefix listed as <ob->, but that in the word, we see <oc-> because of assimilation having happened.
Once they list words they’ve found in this dictionary, I ask them to use another source as well. My point in doing that is that I don’t want them to rely on any one source as having all the answers. There are interesting things to note when looking at multiple sources, as I’m sure you know. Teaching that aspect of research is important and easy to do here. If the student goes to word searcher next, then they will have to find their evidence of the first two letters actually being a prefix in an etymological reference. We usually use Etymonline. If the student uses the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the etymological information will be there, although they may end up finding words that are no longer used (which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they mention its last known use)
Here’s another example of a word with the assimilated prefix <of->.
What a beautiful opportunity to talk about stress in a word! The two IPA representations show this word two ways. The first is used when the word is defined as in definitions 4 and 5. (It says 5-6, but this must be a typo as there is no 6.) The second is used when the word is defined as in definitions 1, 2, and 3. Where I’ve highlighted, you see that this is from Latin offensa, past participle of offendere; <ob-> “against” and fendere “strike.” Again, we see that in the etymological information the prefix is listed as <ob->, but in the present day word, the assimilated prefix <of-> is used. When the second element in the word begins with an <f>, the <of-> prefix has been used to better match the pronunciation of the first grapheme of the next element.
Two students who had been looking at the assimilated prefix <ad> said that they were ready to present their findings to the class. They had created a poster which they hung on the board. As usual, their classmates pulled chairs close to the front and listened carefully, thinking of questions to ask and word meanings to wonder about.
As they began to share their findings it became more and more obvious that there was a problem. They collected words that began with <an>, <al>, <at>, and <as>, but in the words they collected, those letters were not necessarily prefixes. For example, they had the word <anteater> on their list. A classmate pointed out that it was a compound word, and that if we removed the <an> from <ant>, that would mean that <t> would have to be the base in that word. That didn’t seem likely.
Another word that classmates questioned was <atmosphere>. We studied that word at the beginning of the year and the students remembered that the word sum is <atm + o + sphere –> atmosphere>. Then I spotted <astrologist> and shared that the word sum would be <astr + o + log + ist –> astrologist>. We have come across other words with a structure similar to this (biologist, geologist, hydrologist, seismologist).
There were other words that obviously didn’t have the <ad-> prefix or any of its assimilated prefixes too. The two had identified the <as> in <ashore> and the <ar> in <army>.
I did not take a picture of their poster, but the next day I took a picture of the notebook they used. You can see that quite a few words on this list look questionable. There are only a few that have an assimilated form of <ad-> as a prefix. For example there is <announce> from <ad>”to” and nuntiare “report”, and <attention> from <ad> “to, toward” and tendere “stretch.” But most of the rest of these have a different story to tell.
The word <android> is from Greek andro- “man” and eides “form, shape.” The word <angel> is from Greek angelos “messenger, one that announces.” The word <anniversary> is from Latin annus “year” and versus “to turn.” Enjoy yourself as you check out some of these others on your own! So back to the presentation and what to do next.
It was obvious that the students must have copied words that began with the same letters as the assimilated forms of <ad-> without checking to make sure that those spellings were indeed a prefix. Even this far into the year, I see that a few of the students still do word work on “automatic pilot.” This activity might have seemed like the word sorts they did in years prior that matched things on the surface of the word without much thought needed. Perhaps they were confused when I explained how to find the evidence and didn’t let me know. Regardless of how it came to be, we were looking at a huge misunderstanding of what a prefix is and what it isn’t!
But my next thought was protecting the inquisitiveness of these two students. They might begin to feel embarrassed if we kept pointing out words that didn’t belong on this list. There sure were a lot. As a class, we have talked often about mistakes being the opportunity to learn something new, but this was a scenario through which I wanted to tread lightly. I wanted to turn this investigation around without my students feeling any shame for having misunderstood the task.
But here’s where the amazing and wonderful thing came in. When I suggested that these two scrap this poster and redo their look at the <ad> prefix, they matter of factly said, “Okay.” They weren’t angry. They didn’t feel defeated. Their body posture didn’t show shame or humiliation. (And believe me, I was watching those two closely.) And because the attitude we’ve spent the year nurturing is one based on proving or disproving our hypotheses based on evidence, these two didn’t feel like quitting either! It was such a deeply satisfying moment. I was pleased, obviously, but also in awe of the environment the students and I have created that allows for failure without judgement. I thought for the rest of the day about this. What contributed to their rather amenable response to being asked to repeat their investigation? When I think back to the beginning of the year, I would have expected eyeballs to roll or mumbling to occur. What was different now? Well, I believe a huge part of the change is the mindset of the entire class. The students (in the audience) who were questioning these words were speaking in a very neutral sincere tone. The presenters didn’t feel judged, and therefore were able to hear what was being questioned and why.
I said to the class, “Maybe it would be a good idea for all of us to review how we know when an initial <ad> is a prefix, versus when it is just part of the word. Can anyone think of a word that might have an <ad> prefix? Let’s walk through the process again. If these two misunderstood how to prove you were looking at a prefix, someone else might be misunderstanding as well.”
A student raised his hand and asked if we could look at<adolescent>. “That’s a great word to look at! I’m not sure what we’ll find about that initial <ad>!”
I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard so we could all see the entry.
We read through the entry and didn’t feel like the information we were looking for was here. I reminded the students that following the link (dark red) is always a good idea. So we clicked on <adolescent> (n.).
We read through the entry together, discussing the fact that they would be called adolescents because they were young people who were growing up. Then we came to the information we were looking for. This word is from Latin <ad-> “to” and alescere “be nourished” hence, “increase, grow up.”
Next I asked the class if anyone could think of another word with the base we see in <adolescent>. I wasn’t too surprised when no one raised their hand. But it would be important to find one. That would provide the final piece of evidence that in Modern English, we see this base in other words with either a different prefix or none at all. We went to Word Searcher and typed<alesc> in the search bar. We found coalesce, and convalesce. I reminded the students that we had looked at the bound base <vale> “strong” in February and that <convalesce> was one of the related words we found. When someone is convalescing, they are resting and growing stronger. Interesting. There is definitely a sense of “growing healthy” in this word, yet the <ale> spelling can’t be in both the <vale> base and the <alesce> base. I mean it could, but in that moment, I didn’t know. I would be putting that word on my “give this some further thought” list. As I said that, several heads nodded in recognition. Then we looked at <coalesce>. The word <coalesce> means to unite by growing together. It is an assimilated form of <com-> “together” and alescere “be nourished, grow.” Cool! Now we could verify that in the word <adolescent>, the <ad> is a prefix.
At this point the students were ready to have work time. It surprises and delights me that individual work time is one of their favorite things! There are even times (more often than one would guess) when students and I are together in the cafeteria or on the playground, and I am enthusiastically asked, “Do we get to work on our word projects today?”
I waited until everyone was busy at whatever task they were involved in. Then I went over to follow up with the group that was redoing their <ad-> investigation. One of the students was still a bit foggy about this investigation. “Go get one of the red dictionaries,” I told him. When he returned, I said, “Open it to the section of words that begin with <ad>.” I wanted to make sure these students were on the right track. We came across the word <adopt>. I had one of them read the entry out loud. As we discussed this word, one of the students knew that babies could be adopted, but hadn’t really thought about ideas being adopted. Then we came to the evidence we were looking for. I have it highlighted for you. I said, “Look at that! The prefix has a sense of “to” and the base has a denotation of “choose!” Does that make sense with what we understand this word to mean?” They both agreed that it did.
Now I wanted to show them what they would find with one of the assimilated forms of <ad->. I asked them to turn to the <ar> section. As we read words on the page, we were looking specifically for the last line of each entry. Then we spotted the words <Latin ad- “to” + restare “stop”>. Our eyes went back to the header word which was <arrest>. One of the students read the definition. It was surprising to the students that arrest could mean stop as in the sentence, “Filling a tooth arrests decay.” When we read the highlighted portion after having read the rest of the entry, it made sense. To stop something is to make it stay.
At this point, I asked if they understood better what to be looking for. They said they did and promised to call me over if they had any questions. It was time to let them at it!
I made my way around the room checking in on other groups/individuals. There were at least two groups that had completed a look at assimilated prefixes and were ready for another new investigation. I called them over to my desk and gave them a mini lesson on Latin verbs. We have talked about Latin verbs as a class, and now it was time for the students to investigate on their own. I gave each group of two (and in some cases a student on their own) a card with the four principal parts of a specific Latin verb. I will explain this process further in another blog post.
As I was talking to one group about Latin verbs, I saw the group that was redoing their work on assimilated prefixes raise their hands. I went over as soon as I could. “How’s it going? Are you finding words you have questions about?”
And then the boy (who is not generally excited about classroom stuff) enthusiastically said, “Yes! Did you know that <journ> means “day?”
My first response was, “Yes, I did know that. We see it in journal, right?”
“Wait. What? In journal? How does that mean day?”
“Well, generally, how often does a person write in their journal?”
“Oh! Every day! Cool!”
“And what about a journey?”
“A journey? That’s like going on a trip.”
“Right. And your journey is measured in days.”
“That is so cool!”
And that’s when the bell rang and it was time to clean up and leave for the day. Here’s the really funny thing. These two that were enthusiastic about <journ> were the two who were working on the <ad-> prefix. I walked away wondering how in the world they came across <journ> in their search for assimilated forms of <ad->. But just now it seems so obvious. You probably already put two and two together, didn’t you? Or should I say <ad-> and <journ>. Too funny. I’ll have to make sure I adjourn the class tomorrow instead of dismissing them. I’d love to see their eyes light up with recognition!
SWI provides a reliable framework for our investigations and guides our thinking. Questioning becomes an expected activity and instead of being intimidated by someone questioning your work, you become interested, truly interested in what it is they question and whether or not you’ve misunderstood something. Individually, the goal is always to understand things better. In order to stay focused on that goal, you need to hear the questions and give them consideration. Too often we hear a question, take it as a criticism, and then defend our position, right or wrong. We’re not really considering the question. Instead we are plotting our defense. Structured Word Inquiry has brought a culture of listening and questioning to my classroom. The words “right” and “wrong” have been replaced with “proven” and “could be, but I’m not sure about that.” That culture has made my room a safe place for learning. A place for true scholarship. It is an exciting place to be every single day!