Do you remember the way you learned new vocabulary words when you were in school? If your teachers were like mine, they said something like, “Here is a list of vocabulary words from our lesson/story/curriculum that I think are important for you to know. Please use the dictionary and write a definition for each. Then use the word in a sentence.” Was that helpful as you moved forward in the lesson/story/curriculum? Yes. Yes, it was. You learned what the word meant for the context you were presented with, and you learned how to use it in a sentence. In this way, if you encountered that word in the future, you might remember what it meant and even be able to use it yourself. For so many years, I thought that was enough. I thought that there wasn’t anything else to know about a word. But I was wrong. I was soooo wrong! Let me illustrate by choosing a word we currently see in the news every day. Imagine that this is the list selected by your teacher as being words you should know to better understand the current health crisis situation.
Here’s what your teacher asks you to do: “Write a definition of each word and then use the word in a sentence.”
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” The coronavirus is causing a pandemic. (I used the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)
If we just stop there, we know something. We can connect that understanding to what we read in the news. But what if we looked more closely at this word? What if we fully investigated this word using Structured Word Inquiry? What more could we gain?
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” According to Etymonline, it was first attested in 1660. Before that it was in Late Latin as pandemus. Before that it was in Greek as pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common”, from pan- “all” and demos “people”. Interestingly enough it is modeled on the word <epidemic> which may be less broad in its reach than a pandemic. The clue to that being the morpheme <pan> “all” being used in <pandemic> versus the morpheme <epi> “among, upon” being used in <epidemic>.
“A disease can be declared an epidemic when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a pandemic, which affects an even wider geographical area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected.”
So an epidemic can become a pandemic, but a pandemic doesn’t become an epidemic. Interesting distinction!
Now that we have an understanding of what this word means, let’s collect some of its morphological and/or etymological relatives. Still looking at the entry for <pandemic> at Etymonline, we see a link to <demotic> and at the end of the paragraph <pandemia>. If we follow the link to <demotic>, we see <democracy>, <demography>, and <endemic>. Before I leave Etymonline to search elsewhere, I try one more thing. I type demos, the Hellenic root of this word into the search bar. When I do that, many of the same words come up. But there is one I didn’t find earlier — <demogogue>. What a worthy addition to this group of morphological relatives.
Let’s take a look at this list:
pandemic — disease outbreak reaching all the people
epidemic — disease outbreak among a group of people demotic — preferring to common people pandemia — epidemic that attacks all people democracy — government by the people democratic — favoring government by the people demography — studying the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people demographic — relating to the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people
endemic — particular to a specific place group of people demogogue — leader seeking political power by pandering to prejudices, fears, and ignorance of the people
Here is the grapheme/phoneme correspondence for <pandemic>:
Noting the denotation of the bound base <deme>, the relationship between all of these words is now obvious. We’ve gone from understanding one word, to understanding ten! Instead of meeting one member of a family, we’ve met the family! We are much more likely to remember them when we meet again!
But have we met all of the members? Why didn’t I come across <pandemonium> when I was looking into this family? It appears to share both <pan> and <dem>, doesn’t it? I can certainly think of pandemonium as a chaotic situation involving people. As changes are happening in the way we are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, it certainly feels like pandemonium! The only way to know for sure is to look at Etymonline.
The first thing I notice is the 1667 spelling of this word. Pandæmonium. Notice the letter after the <d>? That is the Old English letter known as ash. We see that John Milton coined this word putting together Greek pan- “all” and Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit” which is from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” and before that from daimōn “lesser god.” We see the same <pan> that we see in <pandemic>, but definitely not the same <deme>!
If we follow the link to <demon>, we find that it was first attested in the 12 c. and at that time meant “evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, devil.” It is from Latin daemon and before that from Greek daimōn “divine power; lesser god.” We have all the evidence we need to prove that the <deme> in <pandemic> is not the same <dem> that we see in <pandemonium>. But is <dem> a base in this word? That determination is something we haven’t collected enough evidence for. So let’s gather a few morphological relatives of <demon>. Below the entry for <demon> we see a list of related words.
Looking at this list of morphological relatives, it is obvious that the base is not <deme> as it is in <pandemic>, but <demon>! And when I highlight the base as I have, it is easy to recognize some very familiar suffixes, isn’t it? And before you point it out, yes, <arch> is a Hellenic base “ruler, leader, chief” and <loge> is also a Hellenic base “discourse, theory, science.”
Before we walk away from this investigation with the idea that pandemic is not related to pandemonium, we need to notice one more thing at Etymonline. It is the Proto Indo European root for both <pandemic> and <pandemonium>. Under the entry for <demotic> we see that Greek demos is from PIE *da-mo- “division,” from root *da- “to divide.” Under the entry for <demon>, we see that Greek daimōn is from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider,” from root *da- “to divide.” Looking at the entry for *da- we see this:
So I guess we can say that these two words are distant relatives! Fascinating, isn’t it? So what have we gained by going beyond a dictionary definition of the word <pandemic>? How is what we have learned useful in understanding this word in the context of a current news story? What we have learned not only deepens our sense of this word in this context, it also connects us to related words and prepares us for coming across any words in this family in the future. The spelling ‘dem’ within a word will now be noticed by you and by me. We will see it and pause for a moment considering whether it is the base <deme> having to do with people, the base <demon> having to do with evil spirits, or maybe not a morpheme on its own at all! But the best part is that we have an understanding of those possibilities and will be able to determine which it is relatively quickly and get on with our reading! You might say that Structured Word Inquiry helps you understand what you need to understand in the moment, but then also prepares you for words you will encounter as you read in the future. A quick look in a dictionary just helps you in the moment.
I have just one more intriguing thing to share with you. I came across this article today at Aleteia and couldn’t believe the irony. It is about Saint Corona, whose remains are buried in Anzu, Italy, and who just happens to be one of the patron saints of pandemics. If you’re like me, you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Is that for real?” It is. Read about it HERE. Saint Corona died a tragic and disturbing death at age 16.
Wikipedia St. Corona, abt 1350
I’ve left you with the rest of the list we started with – the list of words related to our current world health crisis. Besides a dictionary definition, what can you find out that would benefit your understanding now and also as you encounter other words in years to come? Structured Word Inquiry affects your reading, your writing, and your enjoyment of learning! If you find out really cool stuff, please share!
Crisis: “A situation that has reached a critical phase.” The spread of the coronavirus has caused a health crisis.
Coronavirus: “any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19 .” There are new cases of the coronavirus in the United States every day.
Contagious: “Transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.” The coronavirus is extremely contagious.
Quarantine: “A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.” People who have been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.
One of the biggest strengths of teaching students Structured Word Inquiry is the level of independence that students develop while considering a word’s spelling. We ask them to notice predictable patterns and we teach them to ask questions that they can then investigate. We show them reliable tools to use and then slowly back away, leaving the student finding out things for themselves. Within the span of the school year, my goal is always to prepare my students to continue to wonder about words and to have the skills, the curiosity, and the understanding needed to independently investigate.
With other more traditional teaching methods, the students expect to receive information from the teacher. The teacher becomes the one who knows whether that information is right or wrong. The student does not learn to trust their own understanding. They are constantly at the teacher’s desk saying, “Is this right?”
This very attribute of Structured Word Inquiry is what quiets my chaos as I prepare lessons for my students as we go to an unexpected break. I don’t have to write out lengthy assignment directions. As long as I know my students can get on the internet, I can count on them using Etymonline, Word Searcher, Mini Matrix Maker, Google Docs, and Youtube. If it is determined that I need to send work that is not dependent on the internet, they can hypothesize word sums, make some games to play with someone, and write.
Yesterday our school was added to the list of schools who will be physically closing. Like most of the other schools, the teachers have been asked to continue to offer learning opportunities to the students. Today I sat down to do some brainstorming. If you are in a similar situation and are looking for ways to continue having your students study words with SWI, perhaps some of these ideas will work for you. This list is not in any particular order. As the ideas came to me I wrote them down.
Suggestions for At-Home Orthographic Studies
1) One of the activities I will ask them to do is the “Word Bag“. We did this earlier this year in groups of four. Each group was handed an envelope with words in it and asked to draw a circle. They had to cooperatively decide what fit inside the circle, and what did not. They had to write a word sum to show they understood the structure of the words inside the circle and how they all shared a base. They also had to write a note to explain why the words outside of the circle did not fit. As part of at-home work, I will ask students to create their own word bag. I will use this example in explaining what I want. It shows that we use no more than 10 words and that some are there, not because they fit, but because they are similar in some way without being related in meaning or in spelling. For so many years, my students went without the understanding that morphology brings to spelling. This practice will be valuable!
Whether they show them to their family or save them for when we reconvene, they will spend time thinking about words and word sums! I’m thinking of inviting students to Zoom on some of those days so we could do one together. This idea is one I first read about at Lyn Anderson’s blog, Beyond the Word. Check it out HERE. She was working with very young beginning readers. If your students are kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd, I recommend you look around at Lyn’s blog. There may be other activities that you will know how to incorporate! I have also read about the use of this idea at Rebecca Loveless’ blog. Check it out HERE. It was at Rebecca’s blog that I first heard of having the students create their own word bag. The students she was working with were also at beginning reading level.
2) Matching game. Give the students sheets that they can cut apart in order to play a matching game. It could be a continuation of what has already been studied in the classroom.
It could involve matching:
~~bases to denotations (make sure these are bases they are familiar with)
~~bases to same base with a prefix (ex. happy to unhappy)
~~assimilated forms of a prefix to bases (ex. <col-> to <lide>, <cor-> to <rode>)
~~bases to same base with a suffix (ex. make to making)
~~two bases to make a compound word (ex. dog and house to make <doghouse>)
I’m sure you could add to this list. Pick one or more and encourage the student to play with a sibling or family member.
3) If you feel like this would be a good time to review the suffixing conventions, I have three videos featuring each one. You could assign students to watch one and then follow it up with a list of words for which they could write synthetic word sums, and when “checking the joins”, decide if the suffixing convention would be applied or not.
***Replacing final <e>:
*** Doubling the final consonant on the base:
*** Toggling <y> to <i>:
4) Conduct a word investigation. Ask the student to choose a word to investigate. Perhaps they will come across an intriguing word while reading a book, having a family discussion, completing some chores, or even playing a board game with their family. Maybe they will come across a word that catches their attention while studying their math, social studies, or science. I would supply them with a checklist so they collect the kind of information you want them to collect. Here is an example of a checklist I use towards the beginning of the year. At this point, my students know what kind of information is most handy, but without a teacher “check-in” the parents might appreciate such a checklist.
My students know that the amount of information they are able to find varies from word to word. It might be a good idea to include links to Etymonline, Word Searcher, and Mini Matrix Maker. For help with writing the word in IPA, my students use ToPhonetics.
They may not be able to make a poster, but they could make a booklet with regular sized paper. They might also use either Google Slides, Power Point, Prezi, or any other creative presentation tool to share their findings. Perhaps I will be able to offer them the opportunity to share their presentations via Zoom with me and any other interested students!
Here is an example of small group work my students did last year when they collaboratively chose a word and investigated it. They originally created these as podcasts, but we extended them by adding images and made videos. Perhaps you have a student who would enjoy taking it this far on their own or by involving their siblings or family!
5) Have them google what a portmanteau word is. Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of portmanteau words. There is an exceptionally long list at Wikipedia. Ask them to read through the various collections to find the ones they find most fascinating. Have them write the two words that became the one. Perhaps they can also collect images or do some drawing to illustrate a few of the collected portmanteau words.
6) Have them google what an oxymoron word is. Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of oxymorons, in a similar manner as they did for portmanteau words. I like to incorporate this type of learning because they see how playful our language is!
7) There are some great Youtube videos that are student friendly. My students love watching this Greek Alphabet song. They almost have the Greek alphabet memorized because of it.
8) Another great video is one by lexicographer Erin McKean. It is a TED talk called “Go Ahead: Make Up New Words!” This makes such a great point about dictionaries being a reflection of the people who use them rather than an authority about how people should use words. Again, it also brings forth the notion that we can have fun with words.
9) The last Youtube recommendation is any of Arika Okrent‘s videos. My students are as intrigued by the illustrator of her videos as they are with the information shared. We often watch them twice because of that. Here is just one example of what I mean. Her Youtube channel is filled with videos!
10) Now how about some creative writing! I love to suggest story or poetry writing using a prompt that is unexpected. My students may furrow their brow at the first mention of the topic, but what they write is always amazing! So what if the writing was from the perspective of a prefix or maybe a bound base. Not only would they bring out their creativity, but they would be highlighting what they understand about their chosen topic. I have done this in the past in science. Possible topics were producers, herbivores, carnivores, detritivores, etc. Some spoke generally and some named a specific herbivore/carnivore, etc. They revealed who/what they were in the last line of their poem.
Possible topics in this situation might be:
I’m sure you could think of other possibilities as well. If a story is what the writing leads to instead of a poem, that’s great too. The point is to have the opportunity to think about what each of these are and what their role is in creating words.
11) Make a board game. Just last week, I had a student finish a board game that he created in which he was reviewing the assimilated prefix family <sub->! He drew out a game board on paper and cut out cards with words that had an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms. Using a dice he explained that each person had to collect four cards to finish the game. You went around the board as many times as needed. If you could explain why the particular prefix was being used (perhaps why <sup-> was used instead of the default prefix <sub-> with a base like <ply>), you could keep your card. He and a friend played it several times and they both determined it was fun!
So! Those are some suggestions for you. I will be assigning several of them, depending on how many days we are away from our regular learning environment. If I think of some more, my brain will make my eyes pop open sometime around 1:00 am this morning. That is what usually happens. In the morning I will reconsider those middle-of-the-night thoughts and add them to this list if I think they would be helpful to you.
When I sat down to lunch with my grade level team today, I was bubbling over with satisfaction after a rich and wonderful discussion that had just taken place in my room. I couldn’t help myself. I had to share what had just happened. I was too excited.
As I sometimes do, I wrote a word on the board and was asking the students to take a minute to think of what the word sum might be. I was looking for a hypothesis. From there we would see where the conversation went.
The word I began with today was <scientist>.
I made sure I gave time for the students to think about it. I have a few students whose hand shoots up automatically, and when I call on them, they need to pause to think of their response. You too? Then I also have a consistent core group of students who love to participate, and who, once they’ve thought about it, raise their hand in order to share. And then there are the rest of the students who watch and wait. They tend to keep their hands by their sides and their eyes looking down. I recognize that some are feeling unsure, but it is so important to participate in the discussion. Today I felt that this question could be asked of one of the students in this third group. I looked over the group and chose carefully. The student I called on thought for a moment and then suggested <sci + en + tist>.
Me: “That’s very interesting. Thank you for that. What do the rest of you think about Vanessa’s hypothesis? Is there a part of it that you have seen before in another word? Do you recognize any affixes you’ve seen before?”
Student: “I kind of think that it isn’t <tist>, but rather <ist> at the end.”
Me: “Can you think of another word with <ist> at the end? If we can, we will have collected some evidence that the <ist> is a suffix.”
One of the students who is usually reluctant to raise his hand, raised his hand. I called on him. He said, “Mist?”
Me: “Oooooo. Now that’s an interesting word. I want to come back to that word in a minute. Thank you for thinking of it.” I called on another student whose hand was raised.
Student: “I was thinking of biologist. ”
As I was writing ‘biologist’ on the board, other words were being called out. I wrote them down as fast as I could. There was paleontologist, archeologist, arsonist, tribologist, and zoologist. And almost before I could finish writing the last word, a student blurted. “Hey! Almost all of them have an <log> before the <ist>!”
Me: “Brilliant! Scholars are people who notice things! Thank you for noticing that. Can anyone tell me what a biologist is?”
Student: “It’s someone who studies living things.”
Student: “And the <o>’s a connecting vowel, isn’t it?” (The student was referring to the <o> that follows the <bi> base. We had looked at ‘biosphere’ earlier in the year.)
Me: “It sure is!”
Student: “And isn’t a paleontologist someone who studies fossils?”
Me: “Yes. And an archeologist?”
Students said they heard of it, but no one knew what exactly an archeologist studied. So I told them that this person would be studying old times and ancient civilizations. At this point, a student who hadn’t previously joined the discussion raised his hand and said, “What’s an arsonist?”
The person who had suggested the word replied, “A person who starts fires.” There were a few confused by that. I could tell by their facial reactions. I went on to say that there are people fascinated by fire and they start fires to watch how the fire travels. Then I added that sometimes other people get hurt either fighting these fires or because they got caught in the fire. Arsonists usually get in trouble for starting fires.
When we were ready to look at the next word, at least three people spoke at once and explained that a tribologist was a person who studied rubbing things together. Yes, it’s true. About a week and a half ago, we watched a TED video about Jennifer Vail, a tribologist. She is really quite fascinating. Obviously the students thought so too because they suggested this word and remembered a lot about the video too! Click HERE for a link to the video in case you are intrigued.
Lastly, someone identified a zoologist as someone who studies animals.
Me: “I notice that all of these words have an <-ist> suffix, and they each refer to a person. We call that kind of suffix an agent suffix. There are others, but for today we are noticing this one, the <-ist> suffix.”
At this point I went back to the word <mist>. I asked if <mist> belonged on this list. I asked if it was referring to a person? The student who had suggested it, said that it did not fit. I followed up by saying that the <ist> in mist is like the <ing> in sing. Neither are suffixes. They are coincidences of spelling.
Me: “If the <-ist> suffix is the part of the word that tells us this word is referring to a person, which part of the word is telling us that the person studies something?”
Student: “The <log>?”
Me: “Excellent. So notice now that the biologist is the person who studies living things and the paleontologist is the person who studies fossils, but the arsonist is the person who starts the fire. It is NOT the person who studies fires. Right? There’s no <log> in that word. And so the scientist is the person who does the science just like an artist is the person who does the art! <Loge> is a bound base with a denotation of “science of.” We usually think of it having to do with studying the science of something. That makes every word up here with <log> in it a compound word! Awesome thinking everyone! Now let’s get back to the word we started looking at, <scientist>. We’ve figured out that the <-ist> is a suffix. What are your thoughts about the rest of the word?”
Student: “Well, I’m thinking about <science> and wondering if what happens is that when the <-ist> suffix is added to <scient>, the <t> changes to <ce>?”
Me: “Interesting. The suffixing changes I have seen are a final consonant being doubled, a <y> changing to an <i>, and a single, final, non-syllabic <e> being replaced. I haven’t ever seen a change like you are describing. Could it be that <ent> and <ence> are both suffixes and are used to get two forms of the word? Can anyone think of a word with an <ence> suffix?”
Student: “Coincidence! You just said that the <ist> in <mist> was a coincidence of spelling!”
Me: “So I did. Can anyone think of another word? The more words we can think of the more evidence we have.”
Student: “Evidence. You just said the word evidence!”
Me: “That is so funny. I surely did!”
Student: “How about violence?”
Student: “How about brilliance?”
Student: “Brilliance is spelled with an <-ance>.”
Me: “Right. Brilliance does have an <-ance>. I’ll write it to the side in case we think of more like that.”
Student: “And silence.”
And then it dawned on me. And I pointed out that we can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘coincidence’ for <-ent> and make the word ‘coincidental’. We can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘evidence’ with the <-ent> suffix and make the word ‘evidently’. At this point the students began to anticipate that ‘violence’ could be ‘violent’ and ‘silence’ could be ‘silent’. So we decided that the suffixes <-ence> and <-ent> can work with the same base. And of course we thought about <-ance> and <-ant> having the same kind of relationship.
Student: “Could it be that these suffixes are different forms of the same suffix, kind of like the assimilated prefixes we are studying?”
Me: “That’s something to think about, isn’t it?”
I will admit that the last question put the biggest smile on my face. I love that the students are making connections to what else they are learning about English spelling. I love that they are asking questions and getting caught up in these classroom discussions. It was so much fun! I’m beginning to recognize that from February to June is my favorite time of the year. This is when the pieces start to fit together and the understandings start falling into place. The students start having words on their minds all the time. Here is a picture of the board. You will recognize how everything ended up where it did from my description above. You may also recognize that I misspelled paleontology. I didn’t notice that until tonight when I was looking back at the picture.
All of the above happened with the second class I see during my day. There was one more group to come in. They needed to take this journey for themselves, so I erased the board and started all over. Different words were suggested, but the ending observations were the same.
Now I want to take you back to my lunchtime discussion with my grade level colleagues. As I was going on about what the students were thinking of and what we were noticing as a class, I could tell that it was one of those times “you had to be there.” They weren’t feeling as excited as I was. They listened and followed along, but didn’t get why this was such a big deal for me. And then one of them said something that explained her perspective to me perfectly. She said, “That’s just it. If some words can have an <-ence> and some can have an <-ance>, how will our struggling spellers know which one to use? What can you tell them so they know which one to use?”
She is used to false rules that focus on what is on the surface of a word without having to really know much about the word. I told her that we would need to know more about the word’s etymology to know which to use. In the meantime, the understanding gained today will help if, for example, the student can spell ‘silent’, and want to spell ‘silence.’ Instead of phonetically spelling it as *silints (which they may do anyway – phonics runs deep), they have a chance of knowing that it will have an <-ence> suffix. I have no magic fix-it fairy dust. I just keep letting students see for themselves what is really happening in spelling and how consistent it is. Progress comes more slowly than others would like, but that is because instead of “know this by Friday for the test”, I am not telling students what to know. I let them see for themselves. I give them time to let things sink in. We revisit concepts often and hope that much of the understandings they develop here, will be theirs for life.
I can hardly wait for tomorrow so I can take the discussion in this same direction with my first group. We talked about some of these things this morning, but we didn’t take it in this direction. I’d like to see what words they think of, and if they recognize for themselves what the other students recognized today. Below is a picture of the board from the discussion I had with my last group of the day. I love looking at this and knowing that between the three classes, we collect a lot of evidence to support what we understand about spelling. That much is evident. 🙂
For about two months in late fall, I worked with a group of 12 students for 20 minutes a day, four times a week. These were students I also saw for 90 minutes every day when they came in as part of their homeroom. This small group opportunity is part of what our school calls WIN time (WIN stands for What I Need). As a grade level team, we talk about the needs we see and how to group the students so we can address those needs. I asked for this particular group of 12 based on spelling errors I saw in their writing samples at the beginning of the year. What an opportunity to reinforce some reliable concepts in our language!
We started by looking at words that take an <-es> suffix versus those that take an <-s> suffix. I picked this because it’s a great place to begin noticing things about suffixing, digraphs, and roles of the single final non-syllabic <e>. I could have started with any number of activities. In fact, it seems that no matter where I begin when talking about English spelling, we end up reinforcing many ideas, just in different contexts. That is the beauty of teaching with a Structured Word Inquiry focus. We think about something particular, we collect some words to examine what it is we are focusing on, we make some observations about what we are seeing, and in the process of all that, we deepen our understanding of many things. Most important of all, we build an understanding of the connectedness of these concepts and facts about how our spelling system works.
Another reason I chose to start with the <-s> and <-es> suffixes is that I wanted to give this group a preview of them before we discussed them as a larger group. It always amazes me how much we can talk about in only 20 minutes! We began by talking about using angle brackets to represent a spelling. When we see a word in angle brackets, we spell it out. We don’t announce it. When we want to announce it, we can either write the word without angle brackets at all or we can represent the pronunciation in IPA. If we use IPA symbols, we use slash brackets. As you can see below, I demonstrated with the word <teach>. I also showed the students how we might represent the graphemes and digraphs in the word <teach>. The word has 5 letters and 3 graphemes. One of the graphemes is a single letter grapheme, and the others are digraphs. I don’t spend too much time on what I have just described because with this group beginning in mid-October, this information is already something we are reviewing.
The next thing we did was to talk about words that can take an <-s> suffix. If you look at the left side of the picture below, you’ll see that as the students suggested words, I was writing the final letter of the word + s. In this way I could encourage the students to think of words that ended in other ways (besides words that end with the same letter that was previously named). Since we already had the word <teach> on the board, I asked what suffix we would add if we wanted to talk about the person who teaches in the next room. In this case, we are not adding a suffix in order to make the word plural. We are adding a suffix to indicate the verb tense. A few of the students knew we would add an <-es> suffix to <teach>, <peach>, and <coach>, but no one knew why.
When someone asked about <bounce>, I wrote it out as a word sum. When a word ends in a single final non-syllabic <e>, it is not as obvious to the students that the suffix being added is an <-es>. When we compare the spelling prior to adding the suffix to the spelling of the word after the suffix has been added, it would appear that only an <s> was added. But that is not the case.
In order to understand why we need an <-es>, I directed the focus to the word someone had thought of that ended with a final <t> – <pits>. We announced the word <pits> as /pɪts/ and noticed that we could easily feel ourselves adding the /s/ after the /t/. Then we announced the word <teaches> as /titʃɪz/ and noticed that immediately following the /tʃ/ we said /ɪz/. In fact we found it awkward and unsuccessful to follow the /tʃ/ with either /s/ or /z/ by itself. In other words, we needed the suffix to be <-es> which would add an /ɪz/ to the pronunciation of the base.
Now we took a look at <bounce> (the rest of that list wasn’t there yet). We tested to see if we could just add an <-s> suffix to bounce. The students realized quickly that the word ends with an /s/ already. Adding an <-s> suffix wouldn’t work. In announcing the word with the suffix added, we wouldn’t know where one /s/ left off and the next one began! Then they tried adding the /ɪz/ of <-es> to the base /bɑʊns/. That worked!
My next question to the students was, “Why does the word <bounce> have a final <e>?” No one was sure. There were guesses about the vowels in the word, but in this word, the <e> had a different role. I asked if anyone could think of two more words that were similarly spelled. The words <spice> and <fence> were suggested. I asked, “Why weren’t we able to just add an <-s> suffix?”
“Because there was already an /s/ at the end of the word and it would end with /s..s/!”
Of course that led to lots of students trying to demonstrate how it wouldn’t work. But that’s okay. I know they understand.
“Does the <c> always represent /s/ in a word?”
“No. It’s a /k/ in <cat>. Oh! The <e> tells us the <c> is /s/!”
We noted that in <spice>, the <e> was doing two things. It was also indicating that the <i> would be pronounced as /aɪ/. Next I asked if they could think of words that ended with a /s/ pronunciation, but were not spelled with a <c>. They quickly thought of horse, house, and mouse. We discussed the role of the single, final non-syllabic <e> in these words. The <e> in these words had yet a different role! It was preventing the words from looking like plurals when they clearly weren’t! My favorite examples of where leaving off the final <e> would truly confuse a reader are please and pleas and dense and dens. A student may not recognize why someone would think *hous is a plural word since *hou isn’t a word in English, but they will recognize that dens are where some animals live.
I left our notes on the board and explained the work my WIN group had done to my regularly scheduled classes. The 12 were scattered among three classes and were eager to explain things for the rest of their class when the opportunity came up.
The next day I wanted to continue looking at words that take an <-es> suffix. I wanted to focus on the ending grapheme/phoneme correspondences when the word was in its singular form. I listed the headings and together we noticed which graphemes could represent those phonemes. In the first column, I started by underlining the final <tch> trigraph and/or the <ch> digraph. then we moved to the middle two columns that ended up including four different graphemes that could represent a final /s/! As you can see, I wrote out word sums so they could see over and over that with these word final phonemes, we would need to use an <-es> suffix. I also underlined the final graphemes in each word. As we went along, the students tried adding an <s> pronounced as /s/ and then quickly knew they needed to add an <-es> pronounced as /ɪz/. With words in the last column, we talked about the single, final non-syllabic <e> that was following the <g>. The students wondered aloud if it was like the <e> that follows a <c>! So then we could compare the <g> grapheme (when followed by an <e>) to the trigraph <dge>.
The last thing I did was to point out the vowel in front of the trigraphs <tch> and <dge>. I asked if the students recognized whether they were considered short vowels or long vowels. We said them together and they identified them as short. I underlined them in red.
Again, I left our work on the board and shared our findings with the three larger classes.
While sharing with the larger groups yesterday, someone asked about words with a final /z/ phoneme. How brilliant, right? Of course we added another column today and explored the graphemes that could represent the phoneme /z/. Once more we went over the different final graphemes and proved to ourselves that they couldn’t take an <-s> suffix, whether it was representing an /s/ or /z/ phoneme. The words with these final grapheme/phonemes needed to take an <-es> suffix that would be announced as /ɪz/.
Today we went back to explore the words with either a final <tch> trigraph or a <ch> digraph. The students brainstormed a bunch of example words of each. Then we made observations about what was immediately in front of each. We began to notice some consistencies. In front of a word final <ch> digraph there was either a consonant or a vowel digraph. In front of a <tch> digraph there was a single short vowel. We wondered if this could explain why a <ch> is used in <bench> and not a <tch>. It was time to get the students working on their own. I split them into groups of two. This is my favorite group size for word investigation. Here are the specific topics of inquiry for each group:
~words in which a consonant precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a vowel digraph precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a single vowel precedes a final <tch> trigraph.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when an <-ion> suffix is added.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when a <-ure> suffix is added.
~words that take an <-es> suffix.
And they were off! They got out their orthography notebooks and turned to the next available page. One in each group grabbed a Chromebook so they could look at Word Searcher to find words with the targeted word ending. They also had a dictionary handy in case there was a word they didn’t know. I walked around to make sure each group was clear on what they were looking for. Then I let them work on their own for the rest of the time.
Another group work day. They were collecting words and keeping track of them in their notebooks. I walked around and checked in to make sure they weren’t collecting words they didn’t know when there were plenty of words they did know to choose from. That seems like something I shouldn’t have to do, but my students are new to tasks that ARE NOT busy work. They are used to mindless spelling tasks in which they aren’t expected to really think about what they are doing and why. After years of Words Their Way, they are used to shifting words into piles that don’t necessarily make sense to them. The words are moved there because of some surface-y reason that does not have any basis in the logic of our English spelling system. And the students learn to do the task without asking the kinds of questions that lead to a better understanding that logic.
I circulate, guiding the students in now grouping the words they found. If they found a vowel digraph in front of the <ch> digraph for instance, how many words did they find with that same vowel digraph? How many different vowel digraphs did they find? Each group had some organizing to do before they could make observations.
By this point, the groups were not all at the same point in their investigations. That makes sense because they were investigating different things. When one group starts making a poster or chart, the other groups get a little concerned. They ask, “When is this due?” I always tell them that they will be given the time they need, provided they stay focused and productive each day. The groups that were investigating digraphs and trigraphs were given large graph paper so they could share their findings by creating bar graphs. The groups looking at a word final <t> and what happens to its pronunciation when an <-ion> or <-ure> suffix is added, made their own posters. I asked them to include a page where they color coded the graphemes and phonemes in each word so we could see how the grapheme <t> ended up representing more than one phoneme.
As the groups finished, I asked them to write scripts. What would they say as they presented their findings? I told them that when they had a script written, I would revise it, edit it, and then I would record their presentation with my camera. They liked that idea! I liked the idea that they now had to think through their observations as they were writing them down. This took several days, and the video recording took several more for each group. When one group was completely done, I gave them another investigation that could easily be finished with our regular classroom work (back with their homeroom groups).
Here are the videos sharing the investigative work they did.
As I was filming these, I saw that a few groups of students chose words that they didn’t know. I was hoping to catch those prior to the presentations, but obviously I didn’t catch them all. When I asked the students if they knew those words, an interesting thing happened. They said they did! And then they proceeded to announce the words. Do you see here what I see? The students who struggle with reading and writing the most believe that announcing a word means you know that word. Can they use it in a sentence? No. Do they know what it means? No. But they have been taught (without the words necessarily having ever been said out loud) that announcing a word is what’s important in reading. It is more important than what the word means. Fluency over comprehension. That is what the students think. This is why I will always push the idea that a word’s meaning is the most important thing to know about a word. Once we know its meaning, we can research to understand its spelling and then its pronunciation.
I have seen the effects of the small group work with the students mentioned in this post. On a day that we were reviewing suffixes, they spoke up confidently about when to use <-es> versus <s>. In the group work we are currently doing, they no longer sit quietly. They contribute. They question. In their daily work I am still seeing spelling errors. Of course I am. I cannot single handedly help 75 students understand every single spelling error they make. But what I can do is help them understand some of the consistent patterns we see in English. Notice I said to “understand some of the consistent patterns.” Up until now they may have been required to memorize lists that had consistent patterns, but that is not the same as understanding why a spelling is one way and not another. What I teach helps them understand the spelling of many words – even words they don’t know yet. I am teaching how the system works, not just how a single word is spelled.
Once the last group was finished with video recording, the WIN groups were reshuffled so that other needs in other areas could be addressed. I have a new group now. We are not working on word investigations. This time we are reading Peter Pan and stopping to talk about the colorful and often times unfamiliar vocabulary used. We also pause to look at the specific writing techniques of James M. Barrie.
And just in case you are wondering, our current project is focused on the topic of assimilated prefixes!
“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 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.