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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is her poster.

And here is The Bachelorette – The Assimilated Prefix version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fŭgĭo, fŭgere, fŭgi, fŭgĭtum
“run away”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Will a Pandemic Lead to Pandemonium?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at this list:

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

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

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

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.


Sometimes I’m Sorry … Sometimes Not So Much

A couple years ago as my students and I finished reading Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, we reflected on the poems we had been introduced to while we read the book.  As a final project, I challenged them to write poems that were modeled after and inspired by William Carlos Williams’ poem, This is Just to Say.  It is a delightful confession to eating something that the writer fully knows is not for him to eat.  The poem captures those every day moments that happen when people share a space and a relationship.  The student poems were so good!  I remember smiling as each was turned in.  I knew I would repeat that activity with the next year’s students!

But then, just a few years back, I happened upon an entire book of poems that were inspired by this same William Carlos Williams poem.  The book is called This is Just to Say:  Poems of Apology and Forgiveness.  It is written by Joyce Sidman and is perfect for reading aloud to students.  There were poems written to teachers, to school secretaries, to classmates, to parents, and to pets.  The first half of the book are the poems of apology, written to a specific person.  The second half of the book are the poems written in return, all offering forgiveness.  Each revealed in rather beautiful and vulnerable ways a tender relationship between the person who wrote the poem and the person the poem was written to.  We often forgot that the entire collection of poems came from the creative mind of Joyce Sidman!  My students laughed, “awwwwed” and even cried as I read most every poem in the book in a single sitting.  After hearing the poems by Joyce Sidman, they sat down to write their own poem of apology.

I found these poems to be touching – funny, heartwarming, and in some cases, tragic.  In other words, the students were able to bring the everyday moments to the forefront and let our less-than-perfect actions and reactions be revealed.



Dad, I’m sorry
for stealing your pizza.
You left it on the table
with the top open,
leaving the scent of heaven
roaming through the house.

I snuck to the table,
stole it,
and ate it all.




I’m sorry I was not there to help you.
I let you outside and let you wander.
I did not hear or see you for quite a while.
My mom and I got really worried.

Later that day we found you on the road.
We buried you in your favorite spot
outside with all your favorite toys.

I will always remember when
we were little and we would snuggle.
And when you would fit into a chihuahua bed.

We buried you with a baseball
with everyone’s memories written
all over the baseball.

I will always love you, dead or alive.
I love you, Dottie.



Sorry for Being Annoying

Sorry for not stopping my mouth from talking.
I just can’t stop.
My mouth is moving,
and my tongue is whipping.
I just can’t stop.

Maybe it’s because when I say something,
you laugh,
and I just keep on going.
I have funny things to say!

It’s just the fact that
they come to my brain
and slip out of my mouth.

Sometimes you say weird things too,
and I laugh.
But then I think
maybe they don’t like my comedy.
I’m sorry.

Just kidding!
I’m way too funny!



Dear Sasha,

I’m sorry I let you outside
and forgot you were out there.
You sat out there for an hour,
until I remembered
and went to get you.
But you weren’t out there.

Not on the lawn,
Not on the deck,
Not even under the deck
chasing chipmunks.

I looked all over town for you.
No luck.

I went back home to look again.
Then I looked in the one spot

I hadn’t looked yet,
the garage.

I opened the door and sure enough,
there you were sitting on the couch.



The Soccer Mistake

Dear Sammy,

I’m sorry for accusing you
of tripping people in soccer
and for being a bit aggressive.

I’m also sorry
for all of the bad things
that have happened to you.

I think you’re
the best soccer player in the grade.

Sincerely your friend,



My Apology To My Brother

I’m sorry
for not being the best
at the video games we play.

I aspire to be better,
but I’m not the best anyway.
It doesn’t help
when you yell and scream at me.

I know I can’t win on my own,
and that’s why I play with you.
I’m trying to get better.

For now,
it’s just us two.




Dear Wishley,

I’m sorry that
I threw an orange at you.
I just got carried away
so I threw it at you.

You said I was jealous, and
I had no friends.
I was so mad.

I didn’t realize
it would hurt like that.




Dear Muffin,

I miss when you would slobber on me
and how it was like you always knew
what I was thinking.

I’m sorry that I didn’t
get to say goodbye.
You know that.

If I would have
gotten the chance to,
I would have.
I miss you.

You were such an amazing dog.
I miss when you would
shove your slobbery nose in my neck
while I was asleep.

I miss you.




Connecting Us to a Place

Have you ever read Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli?  It’s an interesting book that has an interesting look at race relations in a town.  Maniac is unlike most people.  He is a loner.  Not too anxious to live anywhere for too long.  He loves to run, to hear the flap of his shoes on the pavement.  Anyway, one of my favorite chapters to use for poem writing inspiration is chapter 14.  Maniac has been living with the Beales for a little while and pauses in this chapter to share what he loves about this family.  He describes  his early morning runs and the sound of pancakes on the griddle when he returns.  He describes the singing at church and how he gets caught up in it.  In other words, he describes the meaningful moments using his senses.

Image result for Maniac Magee

After I read aloud this chapter, I give the students a sheet for brainstorming some of the smells, sounds, and events that make their own home experience special to them.  Once the students have had a chance to brainstorm some of those sights, events, sounds, and smells that feel like home, I ask them to look over their list.  Which things would they like to include in a poem that reflect what home is like for them?  Sometimes the students saw a theme in their list and sought to develop that theme in their poem.  A few this year chose to focus on their pet who waits for them at home.

Like I said, this chapter is the inspiration for the writing and the student is encouraged to take that inspiration in any direction that makes sense to them.  Some have home situations that are difficult to find comfort in.  But they each have something, pet or person, who makes them feel at home.

Here are some examples of what they wrote.

Drifting Away

Everyday I wake up to the smell of bacon.
The aroma just drags me into the kitchen.
It makes me feel excited
and ready for the day.

But after a hard day,
I go into the woods.
The woods is my happy place.
It’s where all my feelings and emotions
just drift away.

The woods is where
I drift away.
It’s my happy place.



At Home

My dog barks.  I go and pet her.
My turtle’s hungry.  I go and feed her.
When I’m at home, it’s quiet.
When I’m at school, it’s noisy.

I know I’m at home when I’m safe in bed.
I know I’m at home when I’m reading in my head.
I know I’m at home when the things I love are there.
I know I’m at home when there are knots in my hair.
I’m at home, and everything I need is there.




My dog makes me happy.
Every time I come home,
he comes and gives me kisses.

When I sit down on the couch,
he jumps on me and lays on my lap.
Then he falls asleep.

But any little knock,
my dog will go crazy!



My Christmas

Snow falls gently on the ground.
The voices of carolers walking
to my door dance in the wind.
Smells of pine and candles fill the room.

The sounds of my family’s laughter and Christmas songs
bring joy to everyone.
Gifts wrapped carefully with shiny wrapping paper
and tied off with silky ribbons
lay tucked under the tree.

My big family is all together.
It’s Christmas!




I sit and I wait.
for one special man.
So many things tempt,
but I wait.

The dripping water faucet,
the smell of dinner,
clocks ticking and
time going by,
but I wait.

I hear the garage,
and I run to the door.
It flies open,
and I know he’s home.
My father.

I’ve been waiting,
and I know he knows it, too.
I tell him about my day,
and he tells me of his.
I’m happy when he’s with me.

That’s why he’s worth the wait.




Bubba spends his time at home,
sleeping and sitting on his chair,

But when I come home,
Bubba races to the door.
I can hear his paws running across the tile.

His barking greets me.
He puts his paws on my legs
and barks with excitement.

Now everyone is happy.




The smell of my cat’s puke.
The sound of my cat
accidentally swallowing
his toy.
The sound of my sister
whining about stupid things.





The warmth of my family enjoying a
wonderful Christmas together!

When I wake up, I love to open my door and see
Christmas presents and our Christmas tree.

My dad makes amazing eggs and bacon, and
we enjoy that wonderful breakfast at our kitchen table.

I love to hear my family talking and sharing
what we got for Christmas with each other.
The “I love you” means a lot to me.

The smell of our air diffuser that sits on our little table,
and the smell of our wonderful smelling Christmas candles
make me smile.

The feel of my comfortable blanket
that sits on top of me,
and the feeling of the warm fireplace
makes me feel so snug.

The love of being with a wonderful family!



The Morning

When I wake up
I smell bacon sizzling
and bread toasting.
Breakfast is coming.

My dog will be barking to come inside.
I will doodle in my notebook.
I’m still in my cozy p-jays and under a fuzzy blanket.
My dog is curled beside me.

Time to eat breakfast!
My brother will be driving his snowmobile
on a blanket of snow glittering bright under the sun.
My mom will light my favorite candle.
I will feel the warmth of my dog.
I will enjoy this Saturday morning.




Water splashing in my fish tank
Stinky fish food

Pizza boxes everywhere
when my mom is not home

Bumpy walls help scratch my back

Apple cinnamon scent
that makes me feel at home.




Home is where my dad
makes rad brownies.

Where my family’s jokes
crack me up

Where me and my family
decorate the Christmas tree

Where the Christmas tree lights
brighten up the night
and the presents reflect all the lights

Home is where my heart is.


Is This The Right Bus?

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,

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.


Free School Bus Clipart Free Clipart Image                       Mickey Mouse Minnie Mouse Epic Mickey Silhouette Drawing - kiss png download - 1500*1002 - Free Transparent Mickey Mouse png Download.             


An Alphabet Book that Proves How Important Etymology Is!

I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time.  My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings.  But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time.  There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals.  There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers.  Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book.  (I recently read this book to my granddaughter.  It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)

Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics!  One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.

Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.

What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.”  The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.”  See what I mean?  How on earth can a letter misbehave?  It’s an inanimate object!  And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either.  (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it.  Then I wait.  I wait for the thing that will never happen.  The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name.  The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter.  See?  A letter will never misbehave either.)

A letter WILL however, represent something.  If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share.  We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know!  But there is!   And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that!  Except …

The authors are painfully unaware of it.  The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous.  The information they share about each word is interesting.  Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works.  We don’t need more of that.  What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better.  To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way.  To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.

Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it.  It IS unexpected, isn’t it?  What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.”  What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced.  After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter.  In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced.  I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark.  But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.

The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation.  I think that is the beauty of this book.  It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.

As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait.  Our minds raced ahead trying to guess.  Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book.  The students were ahead of me with that thought.

“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>?  I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book?  I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”

And then they were off!



P is for Pterodactyl

Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>.  Let’s start with what Sam presented.  He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>.  He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.”  The <o> is a connecting vowel.  All parts of this word are from Greek.

He also wrote the word in Greek with my help.  I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.

Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is the first year my students have had access to the OED.  They were able to find many related words by using this resource.  The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used.  If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon.  Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives!  This poster was created by Sam.  What I love about it is the key at the bottom.  Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”

For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.)  He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.”  Here is a picture.  The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo.  I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!

dragonfly wings

Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>.  (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon.  The second part in this compound word is <anodon>.  It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.

Pteranodon amnh martyniuk.jpg
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk

Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!

Now let’s look at Jude’s work.

Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word.  He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>.  Find it HERE.  In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology.   Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.

After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix.  Here is a larger version of it.

You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word.  I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix.  The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel.  In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.”  You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings.  An example would be a flea.


Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.”  The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.”  It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”

Hans (
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid.
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images

As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t.  This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry.  There is no expected “complete” answer.  There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task.  An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.

One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced.  Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first.  On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true.  The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced.  Interesting observation, am I right?

So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?



M is for Mnemonic

Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>.  He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.

He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.”  He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.”  That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different.  Some had <mnes>.

He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>.  He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.”  You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster.  I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more.  Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.

Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>.  This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.”  In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.

Published byBartholomew Collins

The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced.  But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced.  It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!



P is for Pneumonia

Alright, you got me.  There weren’t two “P is for …” pages.  But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>.  The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>.  She was excited!

As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them.  She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs.  It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.

When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.”  She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air.  She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works.  I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class.  She chose this one.  It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.

Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>.  I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould.  Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word.  The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.”  The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.”  The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.”  But what does the word mean?  How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?

Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  Cally read that this word is pretty rare.  It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old.  I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning.  You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed.  So did it die before or after birth?  While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.

When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her.  Together we googled this word.  Here is the first entry that popped up.  There were several others on the same page written in French as well.  As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.

“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded.  “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”

So we looked at the OED.  The entry there listed this word as French.  It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.”  My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank.  We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank.  Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper.  But then I noticed something else.

“Cally.  Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition.  Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”

I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>.  This is what we found:

“Oh!  These two spellings are the same suffix!  Cool!”
“Yes.  Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other.  In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”


Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment.  Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>.  There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words.  There is a meaning difference as well.  They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>.  In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word.  The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>.  But then there is <communique>.  We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>.  It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly.  In yet other word families they may not be at all.  Hmmmm.  This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!


One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one.  It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>!   After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history.  At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia.  At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.



P is for Psychic Pterodactyl

I know, I know.  This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word.  But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity.  I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced.  Look at what she found!

Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling.  One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.”  In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found.  You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word.  That’s not very helpful.  All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms.  The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.

For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>.  The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>.  This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person.  A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.”  A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.”  What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!

Another on that list is <psychosis>.  I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar.  We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis.  Notice anything about all of those?  Yup.  They all have something to do with a medical condition.  That is what the <-osis> brings to the word.  Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).

The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well.  The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young.  Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic.  Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads.  The colors were always bright.  I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times.  But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”).  In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.

Love, 1969 - Peter Max

Love  Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use

Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.”  The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>.  In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced.  In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.”  Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>.  The pronunciation was /kh/.  You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.

The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.”  She did a much better job of defining the words on this list.  The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>.  This is a compound word.  The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>.  The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.”  I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.”  This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)

One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>.  What I like about this word is that it  is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel!  What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.”  If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.”  This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems.  This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.


****  Final Thoughts

I could continue.  Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.”  This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful.  Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed.  This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four.  The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.

Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:

Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not.  All have delightful tales to tell.  I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way.  It is not the Russian spelling.  Why not?  Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>.  Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s?  And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>?  Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding?  Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling.  I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.

So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules.  I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving.  I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway?  Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound?  This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth!  This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!


Having a Blast! Creating a Podcast!

When a colleague forwarded a notice back in January about a podcast contest that NPR was hosting, I was immediately interested.  It sounded like something my students and I would enjoy doing.  The fact that I had never created a podcast before didn’t deter me.  Back when I was doing my own student teaching, I had my students create radio shows.  Wouldn’t this be similar?

The idea of having the students prepare a script that didn’t rely on visuals was appealing.  They would have to make sure they spoke in ways that complemented what they were saying.  They would have to think about the words they were using and not just assume that the orthography terms they use every day would be familiar to their listener.  They would have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse so that they sounded more like they were speaking than reading.  And in my mind, I knew they would need to write a script that was longer than anything they’ve written to date!  What a lovely marriage of research, writing, revision, reading, speaking, and collaboration this could be!

Podcast Microphone

NPR supplied a well-thought-out plan for guiding educators and students through this process, so I decided to present this idea to my students.  Since I teach three groups of 22 students each, I wondered how many of the students would be interested.  I needn’t have wondered.  It turns out they were ALL interested!  Okay!  We were in!

We began by listening to some of the podcasts recommended by NPR.  We listened to one a day for several days, pausing to discuss the kinds of information we felt was important to have been included, the overall feel of the podcast, the seriousness of the overall information sharing, even when humor was involved, and the sound effects.  Each day, the excitement grew in regards to writing their own.  Many were regular podcast listeners and  were especially enthusiastic.  The majority of students, though, had never listened to a podcast before this.  But they too became enthused as they listened to the well-put-together podcasts each day.

The first thing we had to do was think of our topic.  For me, that was obvious.  The students would be randomly placed in groups and would each investigate a word of the group’s choosing.  They loved that idea!  The students had investigated words on their own several times and were familiar with the resources to use.  This idea gave them a level of comfort as they began.  Putting them in groups of 4-5, meant there were five groups in each class.  That meant we would be creating a series that included 15 podcasts.  The students wouldn’t just be looking at the word’s etymology or root, they would also be looking at how the word’s use or spelling might have changed over time.  It would also be important to include current information about this word’s meaning and its use.  In other words, they would be providing a broad look at a single word.  This was going to require a lot of research before script writing could even begin!

The students took a few days to think about what word they would choose.  Some were inspired by what they had been learning about during their study of the Civil Rights Movement (segregation, peace).  Others brainstormed a list and then looked up information on each to see which sounded more interesting to them.  One group paged through a copy of John Ayto’s book, A Dictionary of Word Origins, and found their word (eureka).  As soon as each group had decided, they let me know and then started learning as much as they could.  As they found out things, they shared the information with the group.

Several days in, each group started writing a script.  According to the NPR guidelines, the podcasts were to be a minimum of 2 minutes long with a maximum length of 12 minutes.  These scripts were no doubt the longest scripts any of these students have been a part of writing!  When they would tell me they were finished, I would ask them if they timed themselves practicing their podcast.  When they did, they would realize their podcast was too short.  So then the real digging began.  The search for related words.  The search for changes in spelling over time or changes in meaning over time.  The search for the word to be used in different ways depending on a context.  The search for how the word is used today and perhaps which people have become associated with the word.

And with this renewed digging, this need to find more, came some surprising facts which were surprisingly satisfying!  I could feel the level of engagement increase among the students.  They would enter my room each day with the same question ready for me, “Are we going to work on our podcasts?”  After a quick progress check (making sure each person knew their role and each group was focused), they grabbed their Chromebooks, found a table or grouped desks together and got to work.

Every once in a while I would hear an extended patch of laughter coming from one or another group.  When I went over to check it out, it was always related to their script or the misreading of it or some information they found that seemed funny.  They were still engaged, just enjoying the team work atmosphere and the shared experience of creating something worth creating!

A few groups included interviews.  The group that was looking at “segregation” interviewed their social studies teacher.  The group that was looking at “frog” interviewed me.  (My fondness for all things “frog” is obvious to those who enter my room!)  And the group that was looking at “lexical” interviewed the creator of The Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug Harper.  That interview was something we all benefited from.  It was a Zoom (online) interview and the whole class was able to meet and listen to Mr. Harper!

After three weeks or so (I kept reassuring them that the research and writing should be the most time consuming of any part of this project) the first of the groups finished, and said they were ready to record.  It was time to start the next phase of this project.

According to the guide at NPR, I could have recorded these audio files on my iphone, but with 15 groups, I could imagine running into problems with space on my phone.  So I purchased a recorder.  I’m so glad I did!  I would get it set up for the students and they took it from there.  Most all of the groups recorded more than once.  That was fine.  We were all getting used to the equipment, being loud enough, being slow enough, and having enough expression in our voices.  We turned a small storage room into our “recording studio.”  You can see my recorder on the inverted tin can in the center.  The students read their scripts from their Chromebooks so they wouldn’t have to worry about the added sound of papers shuffling.

Next we went down to the computer lab and uploaded the audio file into Audacity which is a free software for editing audio files. The students had never used Audacity before, and neither had I.  So the students learned to use the HELP tab.  When they couldn’t find their answer there, they tried looking for a video at Youtube that would walk them through editing at Audacity.  Sure enough!  They not only found answers, but could watch someone do what they needed to do.  They became pretty confident at editing and offered help to other groups who became stuck.  So not only was I seeing cooperation within the groups, I was seeing cooperation between the groups!  This experience just kept getting better and better!

The trickiest part of this editing was that at some point we had five groups in the lab all trying to listen and edit their podcast.  If headphones were used, that meant that only one person would be making decisions, so the groups usually used headphones only for listening to the instructional videos at Youtube.

But one by one, the groups finished the editing and I saved the file to a flash drive.  Then it was back to the classroom for the group.  Once they finished their podcast, I asked them to present their same script as a video.  They now had the opportunity to add pictures, images, and matrices to enhance their information.  This seemed like another way to share their word investigations in a slightly different platform!

As the groups finished, I uploaded each podcast to SoundCloud.  From there, NPR will be able to access them as part of their judging.  Then I filled out the entry form for each group.  They will be judged in the 5th-8th grade category.  Will one of these podcasts win?  Who knows.  All I know is that in the hearts and minds of my students, they have already won.  When I hear students say, “I am really proud of our group!  I’m proud of me!” then I know that this learning experience has been rich and worthwhile.  We all know that learning isn’t just about learning the content.  And this experience was no different.  These students had to persevere when the editing got confusing or they just couldn’t figure something out.  They had to ask for help when needed because this project had a deadline and there wasn’t time to waste.  They had to use patience when one member stumbled over speaking parts or pronunciation of words.  (They were so helpful and kind to one another and never minded practicing just one more time before recording.)  They had to be willing to go back and re-record if the group felt that was the best option.  You see, with every group I saw a serious goal of turning in the best version of their podcast that they could.  I was constantly proud of their attitude, work ethic, and respect for members in their groups.  Were there moments of chaos and discord?  Absolutely!  But all in all, the students learned to redirect their attention, be accountable for their contribution to the group, compromise with members in their group, and compliment each other for little things done well!

In other videos my students have created, I have been the script writer.  This time the students can proudly say they did every facet of this project themselves.  Mind you, if I noticed that something was incorrect or mispronounced, I spoke up and the students willingly amended their podcast.  But I’m sure I missed a few things as well.  Just today I was listening to the episode about “Eureka!”  About three fourths of the way through, I realized that the name of the city they were mispronouncing was Syracuse!  Made me chuckle.  Their mispronunciation made me think at first that it was a city I didn’t know!  It is still one of my favorite podcasts in this series.  Okay, so in truth I have around 15 favorites in this series!

Here is a link to my SoundCloud channel.  I hope you will listen to a few of these podcasts.  If you are wondering where to start, you might enjoy “Lexical” which has the interview with Doug Harper.  Some other great ones are “Hippopotamus,” “Not so Nice,” “Kerfuffle,” “Eureka,” and, well, all of them!  You can either listen here by clicking on the arrow in the top left corner, (in which case the podcasts will play in the order they are listed)  or you can click on my name and it will take you to my page on SoundCloud where you can see the full name of each episode and choose the one you’d like to listen to.  You can also scroll through the list below my image and choose one (although the full name of each episode isn’t always showing.)

If you prefer the video versions, there are about four finished so far.  I am busy editing more and will be adding them to my Youtube channel in the next two weeks.  Here is a link to my Youtube channel:




“Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your tea first? ” -James M. Barrie

The first time I met Peter Pan, I was sitting in my living room with my brothers and sisters.  He didn’t come flying through the picture window or anything else as exciting and dramatic as that.  Instead, he flew into my imagination via our television set.  Even though the version we were watching was old, the scenery was the furthest thing from life-like, and Peter Pan was himself played by a woman (Mary Martin), I was captivated.   The idea of defying the inevitable enticed me.  For me the idea of living as a child forever was the heart and soul of this story.  Everything that happened happened because Peter Pan wasn’t going to grow up and he was trying fiercely to get others not to grow up either.  But, of course, none of the viewers were fooled.  Growing up can only be prevented by one thing.  And it wasn’t until recently that I read about James M. Barrie’s personal connection with that.  Because it was only recently that I actually read his book.  Thanks to Michael Clay Thompson.

Here’s the song that I sang for weeks after watching Peter Pan for the first time:

Michael Clay Thompson is someone I have mentioned before when speaking of grammar instruction.  But his curriculum materials regarding grammar are only one facet of his vision of a “literacy ecosystem” that involves grammar, vocabulary, writing, poetry, and reading.  I am particularly favorable to picturing literacy in its whole as an ecosystem.  Like an ecosystem, each component is vulnerable, not meant to stand alone, and if instruction of it dwindles or disappears, the ecosystem as a whole weakens.  If, for example, students are not taught about the poetic features or the grammatic stability found in literary sentences, their reading experience will be significantly less than it could be.  If grammar instruction is minimal and found only in work packets, the rest of the literacy instruction becomes narrower in its reach.  It is the same with studying vocabulary.  (MCT’s Caesar’s English books are great for looking at words frequently found in English literature.  They pair well with investigating intriguing word families using Structure Word Inquiry!)  For it isn’t just difficult words that stop students when they are reading.  It is also rich complicated sentence structures that are often missing from the leveled readers handed to students. Therefore, I will continue this discussion with that idea of a “literacy ecosystem” in mind. It is necessary, of course, to look closely at each system on its own, but too often students spend entire school years focused on isolated skills within each of these “habitat” areas.  How regularly do they get to practice the skills as they interact within the entire literacy ecosystem?   As MCT says, “All of it pertains to all of it.”

When looking for teaching materials, it is pretty easy to find books and ideas for each of the areas I have described above.  But where are the materials or ideas explaining how to weave all of the areas together as you teach?  MCT has such a thing!  He has put together trilogies of books that have a common theme.  Last year I purchased the trilogy that includes Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows.  As you may have guessed from the title of this post, we are currently reading Peter Pan.  Below is the first paragraph from the teacher manual that accompanies the trilogy:

“The purpose of this literature program is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities.  I want children’s minds on the books themselves and not on attendant assignments.  It is by loving to read that children become literate.”

MCT lays out a plan for Four-Level Literature that includes:

Creative Thinking

He suggests a few activities for Preparing, but most of the emphasis is on the actual reading of the story.  That is the main event, as it should be.  The last two levels MCT lists are important in that they help a student think about the story and its characters once the reading is finished. The prompts for Creative Thinking are creative in and of themselves.  They stir discussion and are intriguing to think about.  The last level, the Writing, is especially important for developing a student’s application of grammar and essay writing skills.

While reading, there should be pauses to reflect on the characters and to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words.  When I pause to talk about the unfamiliar words, I like to point out how the words J.M. Barrie used are something he chose.  He passed over other words that might have kind of fit in favor of the one he used.  At the end of the story or after we have read several chapters, I might choose a quote or a paragraph from the story and ask my students to again tell me about the word choice.  What does the word J.M. Barrie used bring to the sentence or paragraph that a synonym of that word might not?

I especially love the following quote from the teacher manual:

“I do not like the practice of traditional written quizzes every so many chapters; that is too intrusive.  It breaks the continuum of the reading.  We should leave the story alone as much as possible.  Our pedagogy should tiptoe and whisper.”

I love the reminder that we as teachers need to limit our interruptions to the reading.  With that being said, in each of the books MCT includes in his trilogies, he does indeed interrupt the reading to point out some things.  Sometimes it is the grammar of a particular sentence that he points out.  Sometimes it is the rhythm of a particular sentence that is reinforcing the message of the sentence.  Sometimes it is the poetic quality of a particular line, purposely creating a subtle feel in the reader’s mind.  For example, here is one of the “language illustrations” he has included in this story.

As you can see, MCT not only points out the grammar using his 4 Level Grammar Analysis, he also connects the grammar use to the writing.  He points out the meter and the word choice and how all those things enhance the moment in the story for the reader.  His interruptions are not a list of questions for the students to answer.  They actually enhance the reading experience by pointing out something that the readers (and sometimes the teacher) might not have noticed on their own.  This is one way in which MCT is pulling together all facets of the literacy ecosystem that I’ve described above.  If you’d like a look at his materials, here is a link:  Royal Fireworks Press.

James M. Barrie was born in 1860.  He was the ninth of ten children.  When James was 6 and his next older brother was almost 14, his brother died in an ice skating accident.  His brother David had been their mother’s favorite and she was inconsolable.  James tried everything he could think of to make her feel better.  He even dressed in his brother’s clothes.  He spent a lot of time with her and listened as she spoke of her childhood.  Her own mother died when she was just 8, and she assumed the household duties at that time.  She also told him that she found some solace in knowing that David would be a boy forever.  That idea of being a boy forever ….

J.M. Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer early on.  He began by writing some of the stories his mother told him.  As his career began, he met a family with five boys, one of whom was named Peter.  He became close to the family, often telling the boys stories.  One of those stories included Peter’s ability to fly.  When the parents died (1907 and 1910), J.M. Barrie adopted the boys.

Here is a link to a brief biography: The Family That Inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

J.M. Barrie by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1892

I’m going to spend the rest of this post sharing some of the words and phrases my students and I found which have strengthened our connections to the action and to the characters.  First off let me say just how refreshing it is to read a book with such beautiful language!  My students and I are reading it aloud and thoroughly enjoy discussing the action, the characters, the author’s message, but most of all, we enjoy the words that Barrie uses. I’m not sure whether or not readers in his day would have been as intrigued by the vocabulary, but we sure are.

As I list each word, keep in mind that I did not stop the reading to investigate any of these words.  We only stopped long enough to clarify the word’s meaning and its use in the context of the story.  It is my plan to share the following list with my students at another time in our day and give them the opportunity to choose one to investigate.  I’m sharing things with you that I find interesting about these words and giving suggestions for possible activities.



One of the first words to catch our attention was perambulator.  It was in the middle of a paragraph describing the nurse dog, Nana.

“… the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, …”

At the bottom of the page, MCT had included a definition of this word so that we didn’t have to look elsewhere at the moment and could get back to the reading.  But a look later at Etymonline told me that this word was first used to mean a baby carriage in 1856 (that is what it is referring to in the story).  Prior to that, the <-or> suffix indicated an agent noun.  So a perambulator was someone who perambulated.  The word <perambulate> is from Latin ambulare from <per-> “through” and <ambul> “walk, go about”.  Here is an example of a matrix that could be created using the base element <ambul>.

What I absolutely love about this family of words are the compound words that can be made.  Looking at <circumambulate>, we see the first base element <circum>, which is from Latin circum “all around, round about” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  So someone who is circumambulating is walking all around an area.  The next compound word on this matrix is <funambulist>.  This word is from Latin funis “a rope, line, cord” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  The suffix <-ist> is an agent suffix here and is indicating that a funambulist is a person who walks on rope – a tightrope walker!  The last compound word is <somnambulate>.  This word is from Latin somnus “sleep” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”.  If you are guessing that to somnambulate would be to sleepwalk, you would be correct!

Of course, familiar words like <ambulance> would need to be noticed as well.  But what does an ambulance have to do with walking?  According to Etymonline, around the 17th century, the French used the phrase, a hôpital ambulant, which literally meant a walking hospital.  The hospital was built in such a way that it could be torn down and moved to a new location.  We might think of them as field hospitals.  By 1798 it was known as simply ambulance.  I know that any of my students would enjoy this rich treasure hunt!



According to Etymonline, <exquisite> was first attested in the 15th century.  At that time it meant “carefully selected”.  It is from Latin exquisitus “carefully sought out”.  As it is used in the passage below, it has more of a sense of “with perfection of detail, elaborately, beautifully” (as listed in definition 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary).  Both sources identify this word as from <ex-> “out” and quaerere “to search, seek”.  So something that is exquisite is carefully sought after for its perfection of detail!  That would make sense in the context of describing Tinker Bell’s skeleton leaf gown.

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

The word <exquisite> is just one of many descendants of Latin quaerere “to search, seek”.  Others include question, quest, query, inquire, inquisitive, acquisition, conquer, and require.  If you think about it, can you see how the denotation of their common ancestor quaerere “to search, seek” binds them in meaning? Perhaps this would be a great opportunity for your students.  Have small groups or individuals investigate the present meaning of one of the words I’ve listed and then come back together as a group to share.  See if the students can notice the common sense and meaning at the core of each word.



Another interesting word in the same quote from the book as <exquisite> is <embonpoint>.  According to Etymonline it means “plumpness”.  It was first attested in 1751.  Earlier (16 c.) it is from French embonpoint “plumpness, fullness.”  Before that it was a phrase in Old French en bon point “in good condition.”

“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”

If the word <embonpoint> is skipped over in this quote, the reader will get a different impression of Tinker Bell than the author intended!  I quite like the idea that Tinker Bell had a realistic body shape.  That is not the way she has been portrayed in any movie version I’ve ever seen!

According to the OED, it has been used as both a noun and an adjective.  They offered no recent examples of its use, which is probably why it feels so unfamiliar.  The most recent use they list is from 1876:

1876   R. Bartholow Pract. Treat. Materia Med. ii. 308   An increase in the body-weight and the embonpoint of those who take stimulants.
James M. Barrie, however, wrote this story in 1906.  I wonder if this word is currently used in France?
Peter Pan tries several times but is unsuccessful in putting his shadow back on.  That’s when Wendy offers to do it for him.
“I shall sew it on for you my little man,” she said, though he was tall as herself, and she got out her housewife, and sewed the shadow on to Peter’s foot.”
MCT defines a housewife as a sewing kit.  I’d heard this term before, but was sure my students hadn’t.  I was right.  Later on that same day, I found a picture of a housewife that was used by a soldier in World War I through Wikipedia Commons.  I’m glad I did because it won’t be the last time Wendy uses her housewife.  The Lost Boys will wear holes in the knees of their pants and in the heels of their socks quite often!
It will also give us the opportunity to talk about why a soldier might need a housewife, and why this sewing kit would be called a housewife.  In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for a mother, wife, sister, or girlfriend to make a housewife for someone who was going off to fight in a war.  At that time, it was pronounced as “hussif” or “huzzif”.  Read more about them HERE.

We came across this word just before leaving for a two day holiday.  It was a timely find as this holiday is typically a day focused around a big meal. Before they left I wished them a great time with their families and warned them about stodging. We even joked around and wished each other a “Happy Stodgegiving!”

“You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge just to feel stodgy, which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it.”

When I see these students again, they will no doubt want to talk about how stodged they felt (as Barrie says, “…the next best thing being to talk about it.”)

Both Etymonline and the OED agree that this word is of unknown origin. The OED suggests that it is “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge. I particularly loved the imagery in this OED citation:

“1790 W. Marshall Agric. Provincialisms in Rural Econ. Midland Counties II. 443 Stodged, filled to the stretch; as a cow’s udder with milk.”

I think “filled to the stretch” says it all!



Peter Pan uses this word to describe what he would be required to learn in school.  I can’t help but think that his biggest hurdle in attending school would be the confinement to a schedule!

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things.”

This word was first attested in the mid 14c. according to Etymonline.  At that time it had a sense of “performed with due religious ceremony or reverence.”   Prior to that it was from Old French solempne  and directly from Latin sollemnis  “established, formal, traditional.” It has this sense of seriousness, and that is no doubt the aspect of schooling that troubles Peter Pan the most!

What is interesting about the spelling of <solemn> is the <mn>.  We see this same final spelling in autumn, column, and hymn.  Some may wonder why the <n> is needed since it isn’t pronounced.  But if we remind ourselves that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation, that instead it represents meaning, we are apt to look for another reason that the <n> is final in these words.  If I take a look at relatives of each word, it doesn’t take long to see that the final <n> IS pronounced in some of the members of each word family.  It isn’t pronounced in solemn, but it is pronounced in solemnity.  It isn’t pronounced in autumn, but it is pronounced in autumnal.  It isn’t pronounced in column, but it is pronounced in columnist.  It isn’t pronounced in hymn, but it is pronounced in hymnal.

If we look back at the etymology of <solemn>, we see that the <mn> has always been part of this word’s spelling.  It is the same with <column> from Latin columna, <autumn> from Latin autumnus, and <hymn> from Greek hymnos.  Interesting, right?



This word was not unfamiliar to my students.  What was unfamiliar was its use as a verb.

“I am just Tootles,”  he said, “and nobody minds me.  But the first who does not behave to Wendy like an English gentleman I will blood him severely.”

At Etymonline, I find that this word was first attested as a verb in 1590 with a sense of “to smear or stain with blood.”  By the 1620’s it was “to cause to bleed,” which I think is the sense being used by Tootles in this story.   At the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several ways <blood> was used as a verb, but when it referred to “to cause blood to flow from … (a person or an animal)” it was for therapeutic reasons, not specifically to cause harm.

1597   P. Lowe Whole Course Chirurg. viii. i. sig. Dd   Bee circumspect in blooding the foote.
1780   Johnson Let. 14 June (1992) III. 275   Yesterday I fasted and was blooded, and to day took physick and dined.
1908   Brit. Med. Jnl. 13 June 1463/1   He was very fond of telling tales the country labourers would come in be ‘blooded’.
2007   M. Noble Case of Dirty Verger viii.107   She burst the girl’s eyebrow, blooding it immediately and sending the victim backwards, dazed and distraught.

Here is what Tootles did next:

“He drew back his hanger; and for that instant his sun was at noon.”

A hanger is a short sword that hangs from a belt.  It was a common weapon used by hunters.  What I really love about this sentence though, is the image created with “for that instant his sun was at noon.”  Can’t you just picture this scene?  Tootles is defending Wendy’s honor and all the rest of the Lost Boys are looking on. Tootles is having his moment.  Just as with the sun at noon, there are no shadows cast on Tootles.  His character is illuminated.



I know this word as a noun.  We have a rain gutter on our house, and there is a gutter at the side of our street that directs water to the storm drain.  But I am not as familiar with it as a verb, especially when it is not pertaining to a channel for water.  James M. Barrie creates another wonderful image with an intriguing use of this word.

“Peter slept on.  The light guttered and went out, leaving the tenement in darkness; but still he slept.”

As a verb, this word is first attested in the late 14th c. and was used to mean “to make or run in channels.”  We see the same information in the OED where gutter most often refers to water being channeled and moved.  But according to both Etymonline and the OED, it can also refer to a candle when the hot wax flows down its side by way of a gutter that has opened up.  That use began in 1706.  I’ve certainly lit my share of candles and have seen that happen many times, but never thought to describe it as guttering.  Cool.



This word has been investigated by my fifth grade students in the past as part of understanding the water cycle, along with condensation, evaporation, transpiration, respiration, and infiltration.  I remember enjoying what we found out.  Prior to that, I was aware of words like precipice, precipitate, and precipitation, but never had a solid sense of how or if they were connected in meaning.  I may have wondered, but if my tabletop dictionary didn’t make the connection obvious with its entry, I didn’t know how to pursue an investigation of this on my own.  (I am grateful every day that I happened upon a fellow teacher’s blog, and that it magnified my enjoyment of language!)  These are my own understandings of the words I mentioned:

Precipice – When you are at the precipice of a place or situation, you are at a steep edge with the possibility of falling.

Precipitate –  This word can be used in many ways.  It can be used as a verb meaning that water vapor is condensing and falling from the sky.  Another meaning it has as a verb is to cause something to happen quite abruptly.  It can also be used as a noun to describe a substance separated from a solution or a suspension (in science).  There are other (less frequent) ways to use this word as well!

Precipitation – This form of the word is a noun, but you probably saw the <-ion> suffix and knew that.  It refers to the various forms water vapor can take as it falls to the earth.  It can also refer to the process of forming a precipitate (as described above).

Here is how James M. Barrie used <precipiate> in Peter Pan:

“Starkey looked round for help, but all deserted him.  As he backed up Hook advanced, and now the red spark was in his eye. With a despairing scream the pirate leapt upon Long Tom and precipitated himself into the sea.”

Long Tom is a cannon on the deck of the pirate ship.  At this point in the story, Starkey is told by Captain Hook that he must go into the cabin.  Starkey doesn’t want to go because three others have gone into the cabin already and they have all been killed.  Nobody knows what is in the cabin that is killing the men, and Starkey decides to die by precipitating himself into the sea rather than face whatever is in that cabin.  Using context and combining that with the sense of falling that this word can have, it makes sense that by “he precipitated himself into the sea,” it means that he threw himself overboard.

At Etymonline we learn that this word was first attested in the 1520’s and meant “to hurl or fling downwards.”  It is from Latin praecipitatus “throw or dive headlong,” from prae- “before, forth” and caput “head.”  The chemical sense of this word is from the 1620’s, and it isn’t until 1863 that we see it used in the meteorological sense.  Interesting, right?  So in every use of this word or one of its related words, there is a sense of falling head first or the possibility of falling head first.


Final Thoughts

If you have not read this book with a child, I encourage you to do it.  The character of Peter Pan is rather complicated.  By that I mean that he isn’t consistently one way or another.  Sure he delights the other characters and he saves them from harm, but he also disappoints them and sometimes he even lets them down.  His personality is not as simple to understand as it is in movie versions.  He seems a bit more human as described in the book, and that makes a big difference.  It has led to wonderful discussions about what to expect from him next.  The Lost Boys and the Darling children were at the mercy of his whims often.  For instance, there were times that everyone ate food and other times in which everyone pretended to eat food.  Peter decided which it would be based on his own preference.  He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t consider anyone’s needs for that sort of thing besides his own.

Another character that we found amusing was Mr. Darling.  He was so worried about appearances that some of his behaviors bordered on ridiculous.  Okay, they were ridiculous!  The scene near the beginning in which he is bragging about how he takes his medicine like a champ is particularly funny.  As readers, we saw through his false bragging.  We also saw the events of that night get out of hand because of it.  Near the end of the book, we are informed that Mr. Darling feels guilty for his part in the children leaving and has imposed a punishment of confining himself to the dog kennel!  The students had so much to say about that!  “Did he go to work like that?  Why?  Did he sleep in there too?  Why is he doing that when he doesn’t have to?  Where did the dog sleep?”

Even if you have not read this book, I bet you’ve heard the following line in a movie or play version:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

This is said by Wendy when she is awakened by the sound of crying.  Peter is sitting on the nursery floor and can’t seem to get his shadow to stick on.  Of course, Peter quickly insists that he wasn’t crying.  That’s the kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t like to show.  Well, only pages from the end of the book, we find Peter once again in the nursery.  He has come back for Wendy only to find that she has grown up and has a child of her own named Jane.  Peter is so distraught that Wendy will not ever come to Neverland again, that he cries.  It is at this point that her little girl is awakened and says:

“Boy, why are you crying?”

I will never forget what it felt like to share this story with those students as I read that line!  They immediately recognized the words that had once been said by Wendy, but were now being said by her daughter.  Their eyes jumped from the page to the other faces in the room.  There were gasps and nervous laughter as they realized that what those words meant this time was so much bigger than what those few words meant the first time they were uttered.  It meant there was a never ending ending to this story.  And we all smiled big to know it.

My students would have given up on this book if it had just been handed to them or if they had been told to read chapters by themselves.  Instead we read it aloud together.  Sometimes I read, sometimes students volunteered to read, and when we could see a lot of conversation happening, we assigned parts and read it that way.  We paused at the language illustrations that Michael Clay Thompson provided, and we sometimes stopped to talk about our reactions to the action or the characters.  I helped when a sentence was particularly long or when I could tell that what was being read was not being understood.  I shared my delight at a wording I wasn’t familiar with or a word that evoked a perfect image.  The experience wouldn’t have been as rich with an abridged version.  It just wouldn’t have.  When asked why MCT doesn’t seek out modernized versions, he said this:

“It is precisely these articulate, complex sentences and powerful words that we seek; it is the very thing that we want not to miss.”

I couldn’t agree more.