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.




Sharing a Beloved Christmas Story

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The last set is of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

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

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

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

A Christmas Carol – the Jib Jab one minute version.


Summer Time … and the learning feels easy

During the recent session of summer school, I had a small group of five students who signed up for my orthography class.  Two had just spent a school year studying orthography with me and three were new to it, but would be studying it in the fall.  I thought you might like to see the kind of explorations we did considering the experience levels of the students.

For the first few days, they helped me finish a video I had begun working on before the school year ended.  I shared a power point I had created explaining how the days of the week were named.  Next we read the script I had written and talked about a time when Latin was spoken.  It was when the Germanic people traveled and traded that they became aware of how the Romans named the days of the week.  The Germanic people were intrigued.  They decided to adopt what the Romans were doing, but made some changes to reflect their own culture. Here is the video we created:

This was a great introduction to orthography because I could acquaint my new students with some basic truths about English spelling.

~  We began with common words that are familiar to my students, and yet whose spelling they never questioned before.  It was the opportunity to present the truth that words are spelled the way they are for a reason.  Spelling is not random and nonsensical.  A spelling represents the word’s meaning.  This is such a basic truth regarding spelling, and yet it is one that is incredibly hard for people to believe.  From early on we are told that every letter represents a sound and that when we blend those sounds, we are reading a word.  While that might have a surface appearance of what we are doing, it just doesn’t work to explain spelling and reading beyond words like pat and dad.

There is a quote that I have always loved.  “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”  (I’ve seen it attributed to several people, but most often to Ian Stewart.)  I think I love it because when I ponder it, I feel encouraged to look at a human brain as this amazing organ that man may not ever completely understand.  We seek to understand the brain, of course, because seeking understanding is part of our human nature, but all the while we stand in awe of it too.  In a similar way, I see language as substantial, as beautiful and as amazing as, say, a brain.  It is something we seek to understand, but may not ever completely understand because it was created by a vast collection of human brains across time!  It is the legacy of the human race!

This is not to say that it can’t be understood. It can.  But that doesn’t happen — hasn’t happened — by people who have tried to simplify the instruction of reading.  That simplification (every word has a letter/sound correspondence, and if we just blend those sounds together, we will be able to read the word) does not hold true for the majority of words in our language.  And teaching beginning readers that spelling and words are all about pronunciation is the biggest problem of all.  There is just so much more to it.  There is meaning.  MEANING!  Instruction in reading should start with a word’s meaning.  From there a child should seek to understand the word’s structure and the morphological and etymological families it belongs to.  Then it is time to notice the grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s etymology will make sense.  At that point, those correspondences that are affected by the word’s morphology will make sense.  Once a student knows a word’s meaning and can relate its meaning to its spelling and ancestors, then that student is ready to pronounce the word and read it in context.  And because the word’s spelling is now understood, it will be more memorable.  It will have staying power. (No guarantees, but at the very least, a student will be able to quickly look up the information on his/her own and refresh that understanding.)

Of course I did not belabor this point with my students, but I did introduce this idea and show them that the days of the week were named as such to represent meaning.  It is no longer frustrating to try to remember the spelling of Wednesday if instead you can imagine the Germanic Chief God Woden and think of it as being called “Woden’s Day”.  Change the <o> to an <e> and flip the <en> and you have “Wednesday”.  It was difficult to pronounce both the <d> and <n> once the <en> was reversed, and in time the <d> was no longer pronounced.  It was left there, though, to remind us that this day was Woden’s Day.

~  Another great reason to start with learning about the days of the week  is that it gave the students the opportunity to understand that Modern English is directly descended from Old English.  When the students compared the days of the week as written in Old English, Modern English, Swedish, and German, they could see similarities in spelling and meaning.  Seeing the same days written in Latin and then in some of the Modern Romance languages like Italian, French, and Spanish, they could see the similarities in spelling and meaning among these languages as well.  At this point, the students are presented with the idea that many of the languages we are familiar with derived from Proto-Indo-European.  You see, in the late eighteenth century, Sir William Jones noted similarities between Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), Ancient Greek, and Ancient Latin.  He proposed that the similarities were because of a shared ancestral language.  He called that ancestral language Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated as PIE).  Although there is no direct evidence (writing samples) of this language, experts in this field have been able to use linguistic reconstruction to suggest likely pronunciations of PIE roots and their meanings.  It is important to keep in mind that these PIE roots are suggested reconstructions.  That is why you see an asterisk next to the PIE root in an Etymonline entry.

If we think of the languages using the analogy of a tree, it might look similar to my drawing below.  My goal in drawing this was to point out that the Germanic languages would have been on a different branch than the Romance languages, but that they would both have had Proto-Indo-European at their roots.  Other than that, this drawing is NOT complete.  It is meant to suggest the idea of a language tree, and to point out the idea of different branches in the bigger idea of a language family tree.  During the school year, I will find a reliable and more accurate language tree to share with my students.

New Day – New Activity

I began by reading an article that I think is interesting.  HERE is a link to it.  It is called “Why is the ‘mor’ in ‘Voldemort’ so evil-sounding?” It began by naming some well known fictional villains. There’s Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Morbius, Mordred, and Dr. Moreau. But what is it about that <mor> found in these names that links them together?  Before I went further, we stopped to check out a few things at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

I had my students look up some familiar words with this <mor> spelling. Notice that I’m not calling this a base element. I don’t really know what the connection is yet. I only know that this letter string appears in names given to some villains.

As the students searched and then read the entries at Etymonline, I recorded their information on the board.  In that way we could all see the basic information and make observations as they came into our thoughts.


<Morbid> was first attested in the 1650’s. It is from Latin morbidus and morbus “disease, sickness, illness, ailment”. Perhaps it is connected to the root of mori “to die, looking like death.”  It is from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) reconstructed *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.

Wow. That really got the attention of the students! One of the mentioned villains is Morbius.  That spelling reminded us all of the spelling in morbid.  The article mentions three villains named Morbius.  The first is Dr. Michael Morbius whose alter ego is something like a living vampire. He is featured in Marvel comics as an enemy of Spider-Man.

Another is the Time Lord war criminal known as Morbius from the British science fiction television series, “Doctor Who.”  For his crimes, he was captured and executed, yet he survived.


The third is the Morbius who is an antagonist in The Forbidden Planet, a 1956 movie.  Morbius is a scientist who has been stranded on a planet for twenty years.



Next they looked up <mortal>. It was attested 14c. and is from Old French mortel “deadly, doomed to die, destined to die, deserving of death,”and before that from Latin mortalis “subject to death.” This word too is from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer! That was interesting! The idea of “deserving of death” brought about a fascinating discussion. As a way of further understanding this word, I shared a quote from my favorite Dicken’s story, The Christmas Carol. It is spoken by Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Past is about to take him out the bedroom window. Scrooge says, “But I’m a mortal and liable to fall!” He is explaining that as a mortal he is subject to death should he fall from this height!


Next we looked up <murder>. It was attested 13c. and was Old English morðor (plural morþras) “secret killing of a person, unlawful killing, mortal sin, crime, punishment, misery”. Even though the modern spelling is <mur> and not <mor>, we found that in Old English it was an <mor> spelling.  AND again, we found it was from the same PIE reconstructed root *mer!  This entry brought about a discussion about a killing being in secret.  It was decided that since the murderer doesn’t usually want to get caught, they kill in secret.

The other thing the entry for <murder> brought about was a discussion about the Old English letters eth and thorn.

These are two of at least twelve letters that were once but are no longer part of our alphabet.  Since eth appears in the spelling of the Old English word for murder morðor, and thorn appears in the plural spelling of the same word for murder morþras, it makes sense to talk about them and share how they were probably pronounced.

The students were enjoying these connections, and they loved spotting that the connection between all three words was the PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die”.  But it was also pointed out by my two experienced students that we didn’t find a root that became a modern English base element.  We found no evidence that <morb> in Morbius was a separate base.  We found no evidence that <mor> in Moreau or Moriarty or Mordred was a separate base.  But what about <mort>?

As a way to connect our findings to something local, I asked if any of the students had ever been to Lake Butte des Morts which is in our state, but northeast of us. They had, but none of us knew what its name really meant. I looked it up and we found out that the lake was named by French settlers to honor the Native American Burial Mounds that were nearby. The name of the lake means “Mound of the Dead”.  Read THIS if you are interested in a brief history of how this name came about.  It is very interesting!

Image result for story of lake butte des morts

Next we looked up words with <mort> and found mortician, mortal, immortal, mortgage, and mortuary.  All of them are from the same PIE root *mer “to rub away, to harm, to die!”  They are all from Latin and have to do with “dead”.  This might explain villain names with the <mort> base, but it doesn’t explain the others.  Something else is going on here as well.

At this point we went back and read the rest of the article. We talked a bit about phonesthemes, and talked about how the <mor> might have something to do with that since we didn’t really have evidence of a base shared in all of the names.

Phonesthemes are fascinating to learn about.  They are not specifically a spelling.  Instead they are a specific pronunciation that carries with it a sense.  If we believe that the spelling <mor> might be a phonestheme, it is more accurate to represent it with IPA [mɔr] since IPA (International Phonetic Association) represents pronunciation, not spelling.  Another example of a phonestheme is [sn] having something to do with the nose.  We hear it in snooze, snore, snot, snout, sneeze, sniff, and more. 

This activity was interesting to the students and introduced/reinforced some orthographic truths:

~  Noticing things about words and their spelling is what scholars do.  Asking questions is much more important than securing answers.  What is important is that we notice things, contemplate them, think about what it is we don’t know, and then to ask questions.  In following this order, we identify for ourselves a specific focus for our research and reading.

~  Words have an attestation date.  That date gives us an idea of how long a specific word has been in use.  The date reflects the earliest date for which etymologists have written evidence of the word being used.  The word may have been spoken before that date, but we don’t have anything written prior to that date that includes it.

~  It takes some guidance to become familiar with reading the entries in any etymological dictionary.  By having the students read the entries and by me writing the important facts on the board, the newer students had a taste for the kind of information that is there.  First we noticed the earliest it had been found in writing.  Then we took steps backward in time from there to see the language of origin for the base of the word.  Many of the entries include information as far back as the PIE root.  We talked about what PIE means, and who the people were who spoke Proto-Indo-European.

~  I was able to introduce the concept of phonesthemes.  I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but it will be slightly familiar when they hear me speak of it later in the year.  To me, a phonestheme is an unexpected yet delightful aspect of our language!

New Day – New Activity

I started by showing a short video in which students speak off the cuff about orthography.  Here it is:

As I had hoped, a discussion followed.  The two students who had just finished a year of studying orthography were in this summer school class because they had enjoyed it THAT much!  They shared some of the words they had investigated during the year.  Their favorites were the words they could choose on their own.  No surprise there!

At one point I told about a girl in a previous class who had found out that the word <nice> had drastically changed over time.  It wasn’t the spelling that had changed in the time since the 13th century, it was the meaning.  You see, if someone called you nice back then, they were calling you stupid or foolish.  Slowly that sense and meaning changed.  It wasn’t until 1830 that it was being used to mean kind and thoughtful.  Isn’t that a surprise?  The students thought that was very interesting, so I asked them to think about <terrific>.

I wrote it on the board and instead of asking the students to hypothesize a word sum (something I usually do),  I asked them to think of other words that look like they might be related in spelling.  The newer students chose to get out Chromebooks and look online at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher.  The older students grabbed dictionaries that I had nearby.  They wrote the words on the board as they found them.  Here is the list of words they accumulated:

terrine                                  terrific
territorially                         terrorist
terrestrial                            Terraria
terrazzo                                terror
terrapin                                terrarium
territorial                             terracotta
terrible                                 terrorize
terrain                                  terrace
terrorism                             terra
terraform                            terracing

At this point I asked the students to take a step back and look at this group of words.  I said, “They all look like they could be related.  We see the same <terr> spelling in every word.  How about a shared sense and meaning?  Are they similar in their meaning?”

One boy began by pointing out that terrorist and terrain did not mean the same thing.  He knew that the terrain had to do with land and a terrorist was a person who committed violence.  Someone else added that a territory also had to do with land, but terrible was something that was bad.  Hmmm.  It was time to look up <terrorist> and <terrain>.  We needed some historical information to sort this out.  The Etymonline entry for <terrorist> led us to <terror>:

The experienced students recognized that terrere was the infinitive form of a Latin verb.  As such, they knew they could remove the Latin infinitive suffix <ere> and identify the root that eventually became the modern base element <terr> that we see in terror, terrorist, terrorism, and terrible.

From Etymonline:

This word comes from French terrain “piece of earth, ground, land”.  If we continue following its trail, the furthest back we can go before its PIE root is Latin terra “earth, land”.  This is where the modern base we see in terrain, territory, territorial, and territorially came from.  It is pretty clear that we have two very different base elements here!

The next task was to find out which word was related to which base!  The students went back to poring over their resources.  Everyone was busy in that room.  Each was looking up a different word and speaking up to let me know whether to underline a word in black (<terr> “earth, land”) or green (<terr> “fill with fear”).  It was kind of funny that one of the last words to be looked at was the one we began with — <terrific>!

What an interesting story this word has!

From Etymonline:

It is only since 1888 that <terrific> has had the sense of “excellent” associated with it.  In the two hundred years of its existence before that it meant to cause terror or to make something frightening.  How terrific is that?

Below you can see which words ended up underlined in green and which were underlined in black.  I told the students at this point that perhaps it would have been easier to organize our lists if we had written them on post-it notes.

This activity was engaging and interesting to the students and reinforced some of the things previous fifth graders liked about studying orthography (as mentioned in the video):

~  When you investigate one word, you find a whole bunch more that are related.  You aren’t just learning about a single word.  You are learning about a base element that in some cases is found in many words.  The fun in finding these families is to recognize how they are all related in meaning and then to identify their spelling differences by working out the word sums.  For example, compare these word sums:

terr + or –> terror
terr + or + ist –> terrorist
terr + or + ism –> terrorism
terr + or + ize –> terrorize

Can you see how spelling becomes less stress-inducing when a student sees the commonalities in a word family’s structures?

~  This activity illustrates how involved and engaged each student will be.  They get caught up in the search for understanding!  Being able to make sense of a word’s spelling is something they didn’t know they could do, and it brings about an excitement! Even as an adult, I admit that I get giddy sometimes when I make sense of a spelling or word’s meaning that I had never previously stopped to wonder about.

~ This activity also brings out a very important point.  Just because two things look alike, it doesn’t mean they are!  The chances are that when these students come across a word that has a <terr> base, they will stop to think about how its being used and which base it really is.  They will question and think about the word and its meaning when they probably wouldn’t have before.  Isn’t that exactly what we want our students to do?

New Day – New Activity

A tragic explosion had occurred in a nearby town on the previous day.  It was certainly something that was being talked about by the students and adults in our community, on the news, and on social media.  I decided it might benefit the students to investigate the word <explosion> and understand it better.  I wrote it on the board and asked students to hypothesize its structure. (The boys who had experience with writing out word sums put a circle around their plus signs.)

The first thing we noticed about the three hypotheses was that there was a consensus that <ex> was an element.  The boys knew it was a prefix.  I then asked for proof.  By that I meant that I wanted three words that had an <ex-> prefix.  They thought of:

It was also agreed that <ex-> had a sense of “outwards”.  The experienced students remembered studying exosphere last fall and that it was the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

Next we went back to the hypotheses and noticed that two of the three listed <ion> as an element.  It wasn’t a surprise to me that my experienced students knew the <-ion> suffix.  The newer student was no doubt pronouncing the word syllabically and figured the suffix to be <sion>.  To help the new students see for themselves that <-ion> rather than <sion> would be the suffix, I again asked for proof.  I wanted three words with an <-ion> suffix.

We read each of these with and without the <-ion>.  I specifically wanted to know if the students felt that <adopt> and <adoption> shared a sense and meaning.  As they read them, they could see that the <t> could not be part of the suffix because it was part of the base.  We looked at <act> and <action> in the same way and noticed the same thing.  The words <interact> and <interaction> were like <act> except for the sense of “between” added by the prefix <inter->.  But as far as the suffix, it had to be <-ion> and not <-tion>.  The last set was <emote> and <emotion>.  I let the experienced students explain that the base here is <mote> “move”.  The use of <emote> as a word is not real common, so the newer students hadn’t heard of it before.  The verb <emote> means to show emotions.

Now the question came up, “Do we ever see <explose> by itself?  Great question!  I asked everyone to keep that question in mind as we continued our investigation.  Now that we had identified the prefix and suffix in the word sum for <explosion>, we were ready to look at the base element.  The students were all convinced that the hypothesis that was most likely was:

One of the experienced students pointed out the need for the final potential <e> on the base.  I didn’t really address it much at that moment because I know how often we will see it and talk about it in the new school year.  There were plenty of unfamiliar things being presented to the new students and I saw no need to fully discuss every single one.  It was time to go to Etymonline to read the entry for <explosion>:

This entry had so much to offer towards our inquiry!  Notice that in the 1620’s it was used to mean “action of driving out with violence and noise.”  No surprise there, but as we go back further in time, we see that as Latin explosionem it meant”a driving off by clapping.”  By clapping?  What kind of clapping?  It’s time to follow the recommended link to <explode> to find out more.

Originally this word had a theatrical use.  Actors could be driven off the stage by clapping to show approval or hissing to show disapproval.  Notice that the Latin word that explode derived from was plaudere “to clap the hands, applaud.”  How about that?  The next time you are at a theatrical performance that has just finished, think of how the applause is like an explosion!

The next thing I did in guiding along this investigation was to write <explosion> on the board and <explode> next to it.  I asked, ” If we believe the base of <explosion> to be <plose>, what do you think the base of <explode> is?  Right away three voices called out <plode>.  I wrote those two bases side by side.  As soon as I did that, one of the experienced students called out, “twin bases!”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“They have different spelling, but they share meaning and come from the same root.”


I asked each student to choose either <explosion> or <explode> and find other words in the word’s family.  Here is what was found:


We read through each list discussing the words to make sure everyone understood how each word could be used in a sentence.  As we were doing that, we also paid attention to the suffixes used.  It was noticed that words that had <plose> as a base were followed by either an <-ive> suffix or an <-ion> suffix.  In some cases there were other suffixes added onto those, but those were the only two that immediately followed the base.  No one found a word in which the <plose> base was NOT followed by some kind of suffix.  This answered our earlier question about whether or not <explose> was a word on its own.  We don’t think so.  We left it phrased like that because I want my students to have an attitude of being open to other evidence should we find it at some later time.

When looking at the suffixes used with <explode>, we noticed that they were the familiar <-s>, <-ed>, and <-ing> suffixes that we see with so many words.  It was also noticed that the suffixes used with one of these bases, would not be used with the other.  We tried to exchange them and just ended up laughing.

The one affix that was used with both bases was the prefix <im-> “into, in, upon”.  I wanted to make sure my students understood the difference between an implosion and an explosion, so I found a short video on Youtube of an implosion.

The video shows clearly how the structure falls in on itself.  This is a controlled way of demolishing a building.  We compared it to this video of an explosion.

This video is interesting because you get to see the explosion in slow motion at around the 2:08 mark.  A fair warning if you are showing this to children:  one of the men uses a questionable word at 3:18 or so.  You may want to preview before you share this.  Other than that, this is fascinating to watch.

This activity was a great choice because it centered around a word that was relevant in the lives of the students.  Along the way there were several orthographic truths to learn:

~  The students had another opportunity to hypothesize word sums.  One of the boys smiled and said, “Looking at a word and deciding what the word sum might be is one of my favorite things!”  And as they think about what the word sum might be, they are thinking back to what they’ve seen in other words.  They are thinking back to suffixes, prefixes, and bases they know.  They are not making wild guesses.  They are mentally engaged as they make these decisions about the structure of the word.

~  Having to prove the prefix and the suffix is a great activity as well.  It discourages a student from calling the last two or three letters of a word a suffix.  If they can’t find any other word with that as a suffix, they have just proven to themselves that it probably isn’t a suffix.  It is also an opportunity to think about the sense that an affix brings to the word.  What is the meaning sense that <ex-> brings to <expert>, <example>, and <exosphere>?  If they have to look at a dictionary to find out, that’s okay.  Again, this is part of knowing for themselves what is what with words and their meanings.  You should see how dog-eared my classroom dictionaries are.  Isn’t that marvelous?  I just smile when a colleague complains that his/her students don’t use dictionaries.  I really believe that my students have a need and a desire to know, and therefore, use the dictionaries on their own, asking dictionary navigation questions when they need to.

~  With this investigation, some students were introduced to the notion of twin bases and some had that notion reinforced.  What makes <plose> and <plode> twin bases is the fact that they do not share exact spelling, yet come from the same Latin verb, carrying the same denotation “a driving out by clapping”.  Remember that it was after the 1660’s that it also had a sense of driving out with violence and noise.  During the school year, we will more specifically address twin bases, and the students will investigate a Latin verb in small groups.

~  The base element in a word carries the main sense and meaning.  The affixes may alter that sense as they did in this situation.  An explosion is different than an implosion in important ways.  The prefixes determine that difference with the sense they bring to the base.  Being able to see those difference in the videos I found also makes the sense that these prefixes represent easier to remember.


Every day the students remarked that the hour we spent together went by incredibly fast.

“It’s really time to go already?”
“How does that happen so fast? Our time’s up ?”
“Awww.  Really?  Class is over?”

And then as they packed up they let me know what they thought about studying words.

“This is so much fun!  What are we going to do tomorrow?”
“I loved it today.  Can we choose our own words to look at tomorrow?”
“Thank you.  I had no idea it would be this much fun!”

The students don’t have to understand every bit of what they are being shown.  They should not be expected to have memorized any spellings at this point.  I am letting them discover that there is much about English spelling that is interesting.  They are beginning to understand that words have structures and understanding that structure helps us get to the heart of the word which is its base element/s.  Once we know its base, we can find out the word’s main sense and meaning and also learn this word’s story.  That story and the connections we begin to see between words is what keeps us investigating.  It is what keeps us asking questions.  It is what brings out the true scholar in each of us.  Children are no different that adults in this respect.  Once they believe that they CAN understand English spelling, they will think about words wherever they are and in everything they do!

“Outer Beauty Attracts, but Inner Beauty Captivates.” ~Kate Angell

Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary​ first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses.  At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource.  Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s  Greek-English Lexicon.  I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding.  The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation.  Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible.  What a shame.  Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist.  I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word.  What a difference that has made for my students and me!

This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”.  Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations.  That’s 1/4 of the comments!

Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way.  I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way.  As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak.  Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.”  The job of English spelling is to represent meaning.  You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning.  As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.

A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes.  The base carries the principle meaning in the word.  Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function).  All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other.  Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word.  Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation.  Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.

I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme.  After all, think about how we teach reading in our country.  Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that  1) have a certain string of letters and  2) all rhyme.  Here’s an example:

What is at the head of this “family”?  It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning.  After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme.  Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over?  Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way?  Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme?  Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true.  In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation.  As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations.  Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share.  And boom!  The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.

What if?

What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words.  What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base.  And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t.  Here’s an example:

The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”.  Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor.  Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”.  As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.

THIS is a word family.  There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words.  The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root.  I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline.  I began by searching for <sign>.  I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun.  Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century.  Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>.   According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:

“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”

Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>?  When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology).  They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling.  This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.

Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure.  Every word has a base element.  We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base.  Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is.  When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology.  Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure.  Take <designate>.  The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>.  It would be announced as “d e  plus  s i g n  plus  a t e  is rewritten as  de sign ate.”  The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.

The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece.  Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme.  It won’t.  And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t.  As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>.  When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn].  But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>?  The base is pronounced [zaɪn].  And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn].  In these three words the <g> is pronounced.  But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!

Just think about that.  If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings.  But they don’t!  They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share!  The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family.  We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t.  Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is a marker letter, and as such, it marks its meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced.   Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!

You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom.  But why not?  Surely the children know some of its related words.  They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling.  They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base.  More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works.  Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has!  If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding.  Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at.  It will really drum up interest!

Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>.  As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”

It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”.  Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words.  This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>.  Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns:  those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/.  It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading!  And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>.  It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base.  Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice.  Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well.  Keep your eyes open.  If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”

Here’s another great tip:  Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family.  It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making.  What if they suggested ‘hot dog’?  Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond.  “What do the rest of you think?  Does it belong?  Why or why not?”.

This kind of word family is the only kind of word family.  You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families.  If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested.  Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle.  Sometimes we misjudge them.  If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system.  And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word.  They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology).  And they are captivated!

I encourage you to click on the comments.  The link is just below the end of this post in small letters.  Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest.  Like I said, check it out!


When Something Unexpected Turns into Something Spectacular!

This morning a student eagerly approached my desk.  “Mrs. Steven?  I have a question.  This weekend I was reading a book and came across the words <respect> and <suspect>.  I started wondering about them.  I’m pretty sure that <sus> is a prefix.  I remember seeing it during one of my word investigations.  So that left me thinking that maybe the base in that word would be <pect>.  But then, if these two words share a base, and I think they do, that would mean that the prefix in <respect> would be <res>, and I’m not so sure about that.” As you can imagine, I can think of no better way to start a day!  I thanked her for sharing her thinking about this situation, and promised that we would get the class to help us think further about this after they returned from the gym.  We began by writing the two words on the board.  Then I let Lauren explain her thinking about these words, and where she was stuck.

***When a question like this is raised, the air seems to change in our room.  The looks on faces indicate that thinking is going on.  No one is doodling or even futzing with desk things! Heads are lifted and are facing the board.  This is the look of engagement.  Each brain buzzing, considering what has been proposed. A hand went up.  “I agree that <sus-> is a prefix.  Our group was looking at <sub-> and that was a variation.” Another student jumped in, “Oh, right!  An assimilated prefix!” I asked, “What words can we think of that have an <sus-> prefix?”  In addition to suspect, the students thought of suspend, suspension, and suspicion.  We noted that the element following the <sus-> prefix began with a <p> in each of these examples.  That is not always the case.  If we had used Word Searcher to find more, we would also have found sustain, susceptible, and resuscitate. We thought about this word and the idea that <sus-> was assimilated from <sub->.  We tried to pair up the <sub-> with the <pect> that followed.   We talked about how <b> and <p> are formed using our lips and how difficult it is to pronounce them both in this context.  We all agreed that THAT didn’t work.  It makes sense that the <sub-> takes on an <sus-> form when the next element in a word begins with <p>. So now we had established that <sus-> was a proven prefix.  We turned our attention back to the two words on the board.  What next? Someone asked, “Maybe <res>is a prefix.  I’m thinking of the word <residue>. ” I wrote it on the board, and almost instantly someone said, “But couldn’t the word sum for that be <re + sid(e) + ue>?”

At this point I shared that a few years ago I had a student who investigated the word <president>.  He found out that the word sum was <pre + sid(e) + ent>.  The base <side> had a denotation of “sitting”.  A president is someone who sits before the people being represented.  (I wish you could have heard the swoosh of “Ohhh” ‘s that slid across the room!)  The student who had offered the word sum for <residue> then said, “And residue is something that just sits there!  It gets left behind and just sits there!”  There were smiles and nods all around. Now I posed the question, “What do you think is going on in the word <respect>?” The first student to respond said, “I think there is an <re-> prefix and an <spect> base.  After all, I can think of speculate and inspection.” Someone else called out, “Expect.”  (Perfect.  I wrote it below suspect and hoped it would inspire some thinking.  If not, I would point it out myself. But I was in no rush. ) “Great next step I said.  Can anyone else think of words that might be sharing this base?” “What about spectacles?  In Peter Pan, Smee wore spectacles!”  (We are 16 pages away from finishing this book.  Look for a future post about the rich conversations we have had about the many words we have encountered and thoroughly enjoyed!) A voice from the back of the room said, “Doesn’t <spect> have something to do with looking?  If you inspect something, you are looking at it.  If you wear spectacles, they help you see better.  When you respect someone, it is like you are looking at them, really looking at them, and seeing something cool that you didn’t see before.” “Yes!  Yes, it does.” I replied.  Think also of a spectator.  That is a person who has come to watch something.” The next thing I did was to underline the <spect> base we saw in the list we had accumulated.  The only two words that didn’t seem to fit that were suspect and expect. “Hmmm.  Who has
some thoughts about these two?”

Then from the back row someone said, “When we say the word <expect> there is already a /s/ as part of the pronunciation of <x>.” “You’re right!  Everyone say the word <expect> and feel the /s/ that is part of the pronunciation of <x>.  That’s some great thinking, Amelia!  Perhaps the initial <s> on the base <spect> elided with the /ks/ when this prefix and base joined.   So one hypothesis that might explain why the base element in <expect> does not include the initial <s>  would be that when the prefix <ex-> joined with the base <spect>, the initial <s> on the base was elided.  That means that the /s/ that was part of the /ks/ phoneme and the /s/ that was part of the <spect> base element became one.  They were not both needed.” I continued, “Would this same hypothesis work for what is happening with <suspect>? What do you think?” “Well, yes.  The /s/ at the end of <sus-> is pretty much like the /s/ in the /ks/.” ***Can you imagine how glorious it is to be able to have a discussion like this with 11 year old students?  Eight months of learning about our English language has brought us to this point.  I yearn for more time.  They know enough to think like scholars and ask questions like scholars.  They notice things about words that help them understand its origins, its structure, and its phonology. Now that we have a hypothesis, we need to do some research.  We checked at Etymonline.

expect (v.)

1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex- “thoroughly” (see ex-) + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”).
We talked briefly about the fact that this word hasn’t changed its sense and meaning very much since it was first attested in the 1550’s.  That’s pretty interesting!  We still use it to mean “wait, look out for, hope, long for, anticipate.”
In the middle of that discussion, a hand went up.  As soon as I called on the student, he said, “look at those two spellings in Latin!  The <s> was in one of them.  Does that mean that it was spelled both ways then?”
“It sure does!  Does anyone spot the Latin ancestor of this word?”
“Yes.  It’s spectare, and it’s an infinitive.”  At this point another student voice joins in and they say almost in unison, “There’s an <-are> infinitive suffix.  It’s a Latin verb!”
“What is its denotation?”
“To look.”
“Does that jive with what we thought when looking at inspect, spectacles, and speculate?”
Several answered, “Yes!”
“Has anyone noticed the sense given for the prefix <ex->?  It says “thoroughly”.  Hmmm.  What do we usually expect the <ex-> prefix to have a sense of?”
“Doesn’t it usually mean “out?”
“Yes, it does.  This just goes to show us that a prefix can bring more than one sense to a word.  In the word <exit>, the prefix <ex-> DOES have a sense of “out.”  The base element there is <it> “go.”  When you head for the exit, you head for the place you will go out.  But here the prefix has a sense of “thoroughly.”  When we expect something to happen, we are thoroughly looking ahead and watching for it.  We are focused on looking.  In your future, you may come across information that tells you that <ex-> means out.  You now know that it doesn’t always, and it doesn’t only mean that.  That is valuable information because understanding the sense a prefix adds to a word’s denotation effects the way you think about the definition of a word.”
When I asked if we found any evidence to support our hypothesis, I helped point out that the Latin stem was <spect> and that had the <s>.  I also repeated what was previously noted about the two spellings in Latin – one with the <s> following the <x> and one without.  What we DO know is that we don’t see it in this word today.  Next it was time to look at <suspect> to see if we could find any evidence there.

suspect (adj.)

early 14c., “suspected of wrongdoing, under suspicion;” mid-14c., “regarded with mistrust, liable to arouse suspicion,” from Old French suspect (14c.), from Latin suspectus “suspected, regarded with suspicion or mistrust,” past participle of suspicere “look up at, look upward,” figuratively “look up to, admire, respect;” also “look at secretly, look askance at,” hence, figuratively, “mistrust, regard with suspicion,” from assimilated form of sub “up to” (see sub-) + specere “to look at” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”). The notion behind the word is “look at secretly,” hence, “look at distrustfully.”   Again we noted that the sense and meaning of this word hasn’t changed much since the 14th century.  We noticed that this word was used in Old French, but that didn’t affect its spelling.  (We have come across situations in which it did.)  Continuing on in the entry we saw that this word is from Latin suspectus which was the past participle of suspicere.  Once again the students noticed that both of these had Latin verb suffixes.  It made sense that suspicere would be the infinitive and suspectus would be the past participle.  That would mean that those two principle parts of this same Latin verb would come into English as the twin bases <suspic(e)> and <suspect>!

Someone said, “If we add an <-ion> suffix to the base <suspic(e)>, we’ll have the word <suspicion>!” “Right.  I am so impressed with how you recognize what to do with the information you are finding!” As we kept reading, we thought it interesting that the infinitive form <suspicere> was used to mean “look up to, admire, respect”, yet also “look at secretly, mistrust.”  Those are opposite meanings!  Even though it had those two senses at one time, today <suspic(e)> is used solely (I couldn’t find evidence to prove otherwise) to express a sense of mistrust or suspicion.  Over time, the sense of “admire, respect” became less and less associated with this word. The next thing we noticed was the identification of the prefix <sus-> as an assimilated form of <sub->.  It’s always great to find evidence to support what we were thinking earlier!

As we finished reading this entry, I again asked, “Did we find any evidence to support our hypothesis?” Well, yes and no.  We just found out that <suspect> is one of a pair of twin bases.  That means we can look at it as a base element that needs no further analyzing.  On the other hand, the entry at Etymonline does confirm that <sus-> is the assimilated form of <sub-> and that the modern base element is derived from Latin specere.  That is great information, but might leave a person with more questions than clarity. We saw that <expect> had a spelling in Latin that included the <s> after the <x> (exspectare).  We found out a lot of interesting things, but nothing that verified whether that initial <s> on the modern base had elided when the prefix and base were joined. ***The only time this becomes a question is when we think about the words synchronically and are trying to write a word sum or create a word matrix.  One thing we can say for certain is that we wouldn’t include expect or suspect on the same matrix as respect, spectator, inspect, or speculate.  I am not even sure I would create a matrix to represent the elements in <expect>.  I would prefer to write a word sum like this:  <ex- + (s)pect –> expect> and then explain why I included the (s).  Others might represent this differently, but the most important thing I want my students to understand here is that respect, suspect, and expect all come from the same Latin verb. There is another base element <pect> from Latin pectus with a denotation that is quite different.  We see it in pectorals and expectorate.  It has to do with the breast.  Pectorals were originally the breastplates men wore.  Now they refer to the chest muscles.  To expectorate is to spit or to expel from the chest.  This base element might look like the one we see in <expect>, but it obviously isn’t.  Let’s not get them confused. Here is one idea for representing these words in
a single visual:

All the words within the circle derive from the same Latin verb.  The fact that expect and suspect do not share the same spelling as the base of respect means they would not be on the same matrix as respect.  This matrix does not include all the possible elements it could, nor do the lists outside the matrix but within the circle.  I just wanted to illustrate one possible way to represent words in a situation like this. Just so you know, I’m still thinking about all this.  I’m thinking about what’s happening with inspire and expire, with exist, and exert.  I don’t feel like I have to have a ready answer for my students.  We just owe it to ourselves to investigate as we can and then think about what our current understanding is.  From there we identify what it is we still have questions about.  And then we move forward keeping our ears open for some piece of evidence or some bit of research that reveals a bit more and deepens our understanding. So our hypothesis still stands and awaits evidence.  My students have no problem with not finding  a clear and defining answer to Lauren’s question.  All an answer does is end that line of questioning, and what fun is that?

Guess What? They’re ALL Silent Letters!

I found an article the other day that made me kind of sad.  The article was posted online by the Oxford Dictionaries and was called, “Why English is so hard to learn:  silent letters.”  Here is a link to the article.  The first thing that struck me was the term “silent letters”.  I am aware that letters that are unpronounced in a word are commonly referred to as silent letters, but that doesn’t make it accurate.  I also admit that in the not too distant past I called them that as well … because that was what I was told they were.  In a world where children are taught that letters routinely “say” sounds, as in the letter f says /f/, it might indeed seem to make sense to call the <g> in <sign> silent since it isn’t “saying” anything.

But I’ve come to realize how misleading that way of thinking is.  And it is.  Very misleading.

Letters produce sound?

Let’s begin with the underlying assumption here that letters do make sounds.  Obviously they do not.  Can not.  They’re just symbols printed on paper.  Yet we ask children to believe that they do.  In fact we begin a child’s reading instruction by teaching them that the consonants each “make” one sound and the vowels each “make” two.   What we really mean here, and what we should really be saying to children is that letters represent pronunciation.  So for example, we can say that the letter <s> represents /s/.  But don’t stop there.  If you don’t want to get into all of the pronunciations that the letter <s> CAN represent, then just say, “The letter <s> CAN represent /s/.  It can also represent other pronunciations, but right now we’ll focus on /s/.”   Using this wording leaves the door open to other pronunciations of the letter <s> as they will, without any doubt, notice in words.  The students won’t be gobsmacked when it happens.  They will have been waiting for it and looking forward to understanding why and when <s> has other pronunciations.

With this slight change in OUR explanation, we are switching from having children think something is possible (that even THEY can recognize is not) to simply stating the truth to children.  Changing your wording may seem trivial to you as you are reading this, but within a year or two of learning to read and write, children are already beginning to see our language as one that makes no sense.  And the fact that the adults don’t understand our language as well as they could, doesn’t help.  Many just repeat what they were taught or what some teacher manual says to repeat.  They don’t question what they don’t understand because their own education regarding our language has unintentionally taught them to believe that our language makes no sense.  I imagine that you have seen the same kinds of “proof” that I have where someone asks about house and mouse, and that if the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?  There are lots of those kinds of questions offered up as proof that English spelling cannot be understood.  And perhaps, if the only aspect of English spelling that has been presented is that of the “sounds” of letters and words, then of course it might feel impossible to understand.

Learning letter, digraph, and trigraph pronunciations in isolation?

Can you imagine teaching children to read music by holding up a card with a musical note drawn on it and expecting them to sing it?  Of course that wouldn’t work because until they see the note on the proper line of the musical staff, or hear it in comparison to the note in front of it or behind it within a song, they won’t know the right note to sing.  Expecting children to recognize and accurately sing all of the notes before they see any of them on a staff or in a measure of music is ludicrous.  Before children learn to read music, they have sung hundreds of songs.  They have sung the notes in hundreds of combinations. But not in isolation.  Each note makes sense in its setting, in the context of its song.

Is it so different with children who are learning to read?  Why don’t we teach them letters, digraphs, and trigraphs in the context of a word or even a sentence?  Because THAT’S where those pronunciations become clear and predictable.  Perhaps begin with a word that is used in a story you are reading.  The child can get a feel for how the word is used and what it means by pulling it out of context for a closer look.  Maybe you’ll want to think of other words related to this one.  For example, if you are focusing on the word ‘dog’, maybe you want to talk about a dog house or dog food or dogs.  You can both count how many letters are in the word.  Then point out that each letter in this word represents a grapheme, and that each of those graphemes represents a phoneme.  Then pronounce each.  You might point out that in any word that has a final <g>, that <g> will be pronounced /g/.  Then you can brainstorm some other words with a final /g/.  Then again, maybe the student wants to pick out a word to look at.  Maybe it could be routine that every time you read a story together, you each pick out a word to look at and think about.  Review the names of the letters and compare the way letters are pronounced in words.  For example, compare the <s> in small to the <s> in dogs.  Find some other words with a final <s> and practice reading the words together and feeling whether the final <s> in those words is pronounced /z/ or /s/.  This might even be that opportunity to find letters in words that are unpronounced!

It is common practice to teach graphemes and digraphs in isolation.  I remember back a bunch of years.  Our spelling list included words in which the main vowel was called “long e” and pronounced as /i/.  The students would brainstorm different letter strings we could use to represent that pronunciation.  We came up with <ee> as in reel, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in received, <ie> as in chief, <e> as in be, <y> as the final letter in baby, and <e_e> as in these.  Every week we would brainstorm these patterns and then think of words that used those spellings for that pronunciation.  What busy work!  The students would ask, “How do you know which of those spellings is in a particular word?”  I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.  After a while they stopped asking and they resigned themselves to empty memorization.  What I was doing didn’t make them better spellers unless they were already great at memorizing.  You see, looking at the vowel pronunciation and all the letter strings that might represent it just made matching them up feel very random.  To the students, it was like playing “take a guess.”

It makes much more sense to start with a word that a student has come across and that they are interested in.

So why are some letters in some words unpronounced?

Let’s focus on some of the letters identified as “silent” in the article.  We’ll look through a few at a time so I can explain some possible reasons for that letter not being pronounced in that word.

Let’s begin with read, as in “She read that book yesterday.”  The <a> cannot be considered unpronounced because it is not functioning independently in this word.  It is part of the digraph <ea>.  That means that the two letters are representing one grapheme which is representing one phoneme.  In this word, the digraph <ea> is representing /ɛ/ as it does in bread, feather, and breath.  This digraph can also represent /i/ as it does in team, eat, and bean.  The fact that this one digraph can be representing two different phonemes makes it perfect for this word.  If you look at other words in this family, you’ll see that both of these pronunciations are present: <ea> as /i/ – read, reading, readable, reader, readability, readership, misread, and <ea> as /ɛ/ well-read, read, misread.  The meaning of this base is constant, but the pronunciation of the base is dependent on the context in which we find it, as well as the affixes attached to it.

The next word on the list is crumb.  The <b> in this word is considered a marker letter.  It is marking its connection to other members in its family in which the <b> IS pronounced.  That would include words like crumble, crumbling, and crumbled.  If the <b> were removed from <crumb> just because it is no longer pronounced, we would not recognize this word as belonging to this word family and sharing its meaning.

Since dumb and lamb have a similar placement of <b>, let’s look at them together.  These two have a similar story.  The final <b> in both of these words marks their etymological origins.  The word dumb is from the Old English word dumb.  At that time it meant “silent, unable to speak”.  Even though it has come to mean other things as well, its spelling has not changed.  The word lamb has a story that is not very different.  It is from the Old English word which was spelled either as lamb, lomb, or lemb depending on where one lived.  In both dumb and lamb, the final <b> has been there from the beginning.  And even though we don’t pronounce it, it is part of this word’s identity.  When we see words like lambskin, lambkin, and lambswool, we instantly know these are related to the animal we know as a lamb.

In Modern English spelling, the consonant cluster <mb>, when found final in a word, is considered to be unpronounceable.  In that case, the last letter in the word is unpronounced.  This explains why we don’t pronounce the final <b> in crumb, dumb, lamb, tomb, bomb, and thumb, yet we DO pronounce that <b> in related words like thimble, crumble, bombard, and rhombus.

The word debt has a very interesting story to tell.  It’s etymological journey begins in Latin with debitum “thing owed.”  Its spelling changed for a while because of a French influence (dette, dete).  Sometime after c.1400, the <b> was restored.  So once again, this unpronounced letter marks a connection to this word’s root.  It is interesting to note that the <b> IS pronounced in the related word debit where we see the two letters separated by a vowel.

Next up is ascend.  This word is from Latin ascendere “to climb up, mount.”  The <c> would have been pronounced /k/ in Latin.  When we compare it to descend, we can hypothesize that the base element is <scend>.  The prefix is an assimilated form of <ad-> “to, near, at”.  The Etymonline entry for this prefix states that the <ad-> is simplified to <a-> before an <sc>.  That gives us information about the word’s structure, but not the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the <c>.

In thinking about the <c> here, I wondered whether or not it IS pronounced in words in which it appears to be paired up with the <s>.  I went to Word Searcher and found a long list of words with an <sc> letter string.  Here are a few of them:  scone, scope, scoot, scrub, screw, scab, scale, scarf, scream, and rescue.  I also noticed other words in which the <c> seemed to be unpronounced.  Here are a few of them:  descent, scion, scenic, scent, obscene, scepter, scissor, and scythe.  In looking at the lists it became obvious to me that this is just a case of knowing the pronunciations that can be represented by the grapheme <c> and what governs that.  When followed by an <e>, <i>, or <y>, it will be /s/.  When followed by anything else, it will be /k/.  When the <s> AND <c> in a word would both be representing /s/, they function instead as a digraph representing a single /s/.

Two other words in this list have the <sc> pronounced as /s/.  The first is scene.  This word originated in Greek as σκηνικός “of the stage, scenic, theatrical.”  It is transcribed as skenikos.  When the Greek suffixal construction <-ikos> was removed and this word was transcribed into Latin, the <k>’s were written as <c> (scene), but the pronunciation of the <c> remained /k/.  As had happened in many many instances, this word was influenced by Middle French speakers (scéne) and the <c> lost its hard pronunciation.  Today we can recognize the <sc> as a digraph representing /s/.

The last word in this group is science.  This word is from Latin scientia “what is known, acquired by study.”  If we further analyze this word, we find the base element of <sci> “know, be able to separate one thing from another.”  It’s the same base we see in conscience, unconscious, and conscientious.  Do you see the meaning connections there?  Isn’t that fascinating?  A tangent, I know, but sometimes I can’t help it!  Back to the phonology of the <c> in science.  In Latin, the <c> would have been pronounced as /k/, but like scene, as this word journeyed through time, it was influenced by French speakers – (Old French science).  The <c> took on a /s/ pronunciation which persists today.

It’s time to look at Wednesday.  This day of the week was originally named for the Roman god that corresponded to the planet Mercury.  That is why the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spell this day as Mercredi, Mercoledi, and Miércoles respectively.  When the Germanic people adopted this naming of the days, they switched out the Roman gods for their own gods who had similar characteristics.  The day known as Dies Mercurii to the Romans became known as Woden’s Day to the Germanic people.  Can you see now how Woden’s Day became Wednesday?  There is a slight difference with the letters which no doubt prompted the <d> to lose its pronunciation.  Once the <en> in Woden was reversed and the <o> changed to an <e>, the <dn> letter string became less pronounceable.  If you say the word ‘Wednesday’ several times, you can feel the elision happening and the <d> becoming unpronounced.

Next up is reign.  The Etymonline entry shows that the verb form of this word is from Latin regnare “be king, rule.”  Moving forward through time, this word was adopted and adapted in Old French where it was spelled regner.  In its noun form it gained the <i> and was spelled reigne.  Seeing that the <gn> has always been part of this word’s spelling, I looked for relatives of this word to see if is pronounced in any of those.  I found the words regnant “reigning, exercising authority” and regnal “pertaining to a reign.”  So it seems that in Modern English the <g> is pronounced when the base is <regn>, but not pronounced when the base is <reign>.

Next on the list is anchor and what an entertaining story awaits!  The Etymonline entry lists this word as beginning in Latin as ancora “an anchor.”  The information there also points to the Greek ankyra “an anchor, a hook” as being either an earlier ancestor or perhaps a cognate (emerging at the same time).  This information is especially interesting because of the Greek letter kappa being transcribed to the Latin <c>.  A modern English <ch> spelling that is pronounced as /k/ usually originates from the Greek letter χ (chi) which was transcribed into Latin as <ch>.  That did not happen here.  So why is the <ch> representing /k/ in this word?

Reading on at Etymonline, the story is revealed.  The <ch> is NOT etymological and was inserted in the late 16th century, “a pedantic imitation of a corrupt spelling of the Latin word.”  So even though the <ch> in this word is NOT derived from the Greek letter chi, it now looks like and behaves like it was, including being pronounced /k/.  The <h> is part of the <ch> digraph.  It is not operating as an independent grapheme.

So what about architect, character, and chord?  They each have <ch> representing /k/.  Do they share a Hellenic ancestry?  Well, architect is from the Greek αρχι-τέκτων “chief builder.”  That would have been transcribed by the Romans as archi-tecton.  As you will notice, the third Greek letter was χ (chi).  When that letter was transcribed by the Romans, they transcribed it as <ch> and pronounced it /k/.

Digging into the etymology of character we find that it is from the Greek χαρακτήρ “engraved mark”.  As you can see, the initial letter in Greek was again χ (chi).  This word was transcribed by the Romans as character .  The initial <ch> was pronounced /k/.  This word lost that <ch> spelling for a while.  At one point it was adopted and adapted by Old French and its spelling changed to caratere “feature, character”.  It was sometime in the 1500’s that the <ch> spelling was restored.

So what about chord?  Will we see that it too has a <ch> that derived from the Greek letter χ?  Prepare for another interesting word story!  This word has two entries. The first is as a noun meaning “two or more musical notes sounded together”, and is from 1608.  It is an alteration of Middle English cord, a shortened form of accord.  The second is as a noun meaning “a structure of the body, emotions figuratively considered as a string on a musical instrument, straight line connecting two points on a circumference”, and is from 1543.  The note of interest is this statement in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:  “English chord(2) and Latin chorda, both meaning a string of a musical instrument have influenced this word by association of form and meaning.”  If the Latin word was chorda, that initial <ch> is like the others we encountered in character and architect.  It was originally a χ (chi) in Greek.  The Greek word was χορδή “a string of gut, the string or chord of a lyre or harp.”

So what about the claim that in the words anchor, architect, character, and chord the <h> is silent (unpronounced)?  It is not.  The <h> is part of the digraph <ch> that represents /k/ in these words.  When you see this particular digraph representing /k/ in a word, it is usually marking a Hellenic heritage.

The words autumn and column have a final <n> that is not pronounced.  Why?  When we look at autumn we see it is from Latin autumnus.  Minus the Latin suffix, the spelling is a direct derivation.  Interesting side note:  This season was called Harvest by the English until Autumn displaced it in the 16th century.

The word column is from Latin columna “pillar.”  Again, the Modern English spelling is a direct derivation.  The final <n>’s in these words may not be pronounced, but they are pronounced in other members of these word families.  Think of autumnal, autumnally, columnist, columnar, columniation.  We can think of the final <n> marking a connection to its relatives!

The word psychology takes us back to Greek.  How do I know?  Check out the <ch> grapheme representing the phoneme /k/!  But with this word we are to focus on the initial <ps> cluster in this word.  This word was coined in the 1650’s from a Latinized form of ψυχικός “breath, spirit, soul.”  You see and recognize the third letter in, right?  It’s χ (chi).  It was transcribed by the Romans as <ch> since they didn’t have a letter that was its equal.  Well, look at the first Greek letter in the same Greek word.  It is the letter ψ (psi).  When it was transcribed into Latin, the Romans had no equivalent letter, and so transcribed it as <ps>.  In Modern English, this cluster is considered unpronounceable when it is initial in a word.  Both the <p> and the <s> are pronounced though, in words like biopsy, autopsy, and epilepsy.

Next on the list is pneumonia, and the focus is on the initial unpronounced <p>.  This word comes from the Greek word πνεύμων transcribed as pneumon “lung.”  The reason we no longer pronounce the inital <p> is because of its placement.  Richard Venezky (The American Way of Spelling) describes this cluster as unpronounceable when it is initial.  When we see this cluster in another position, that is not the case.  Look at apnea and tachypnea.

Now let’s look at receipt.  The focus here is also the unpronounced <p>.  This word is from Old French recete and before that from Latin recepta “received.”  According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “The English spelling with p (in imitation of the Latin form) is first recorded in the late 1300’s,  but did not  become the established form until the 1700’s.”  So the <p> was in the spelling of the Latin word recepta, but disappeared as this word was adopted and adapted in Old French.  It reappeared sometime in the late 1300’s, and became part of the established form of the word in the 1700’s.  That explains its place in the word, but what about it not being pronounced?  Well, according to Richard Venezky, there are a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” in which the <p> is unpronounced.  Besides receipt, examples include corps and coup.

With mortgage we’ll be looking at the unpronounced <t>.  According to Etymonline, this word was first attested in the late 14th century as Old French morgage “conveyance of property as security for a loan or agreement.” This Old French word is from mort “dead” and gage “pledge”.  This name is fitting because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when the payment fails.”  Old French mort is from Latin mortuus.  The <t> was not evident in the Old French word, but was restored in English based on the Latin.  This word is considered a French borrowing with the <t> restored to mark an etymological connection to its Latin root mortuus.  As such, the <t> is not pronounced.

The next three words have unpronounced <u>’s.  The first is build.  It is from Middle English bilden and earlier (probably 1200) it was bulden “dwelling.”  According to Chambers, “It was not until the late 1500’s that our spelling begins to appear with frequency.  Even so, the spelling is not accounted for, unless it is simply a composite of the two earlier spellings bilden and bulden.”  The sense and meaning of putting something together came about in 1667.  Although <u> is found in words like guild, guilt, guitar, and circuit, and therefore might appear to be a <ui> vowel digraph, it is not.  The <u> has a specific function in those words that it is not performing in build.  I will explain further in the next paragraph as we look at the words guess and guide.  In the word build, the <u> is unpronounced.

The word guess is from Old English gessen “infer, perceive, find out.”  According to Etymonline, the <gu> was late 16th century.  This sometimes happened in Middle English to signal a “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.   In this word, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter.  It marks the pronunciation of the <g>.

The last word in this group is guide.  This word is from Old French guider “to lead, conduct.”  The <u> has always been part of the spelling of this word.  Here, the unpronounced <u> is considered a marker letter as it was in guess.  It is marking the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.

This last group of words are all listed as have a silent w.  Let’s find out what we can about them.

First up is playwright.   According to Wikipedia, “It appears to have been first used in a pejorative sense by Ben Jonson in 1853 to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre.  Jonson described himself as a poet, not a playwright, since plays during that time were written in meter and so were regarded as the province of poets.”  You see, at the time, the word wright was Old English wryhta, wrihta “worker.”  Ben Jonson saw what he did as above the rank of a worker.  He referred to himself as a poet and not a playwright.

As far as the <wr> spelling, Etymonline notes that it was a common Germanic consonantal combination (and that we can see for ourselves when we look at the Old English spelling).  It is especially interesting to note that the <wr> combination often starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  A worker or crafter might indeed need to twist in order to craft something!  Etymonline goes on to note that the <w> ceased to be pronounced sometime c. 1450-1700.

The next word on the list is sword.  This word is from Old English sweord, swyrd, sword “cutting weapon.”  As you can see, the <w> has been part of its spelling since its beginning and was no doubt pronounced at that time.  Even though that <w> is generally unpronounced in this word, we can consider the <w> as marking its language of origin.

Now let’s look at wrap.  This word was first attested in the 14 c. as Old English wrappen “to wind something around something else.”  This is the same common Germanic consonantal combination we saw in wright that starts words that imply twisting or distortion.  To wind something is certainly to twist it!

Wreck was first attested in the early 13th century, “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck.”  Before that it was from Anglo-French wrec and before that from a Scandinavian source.  A note of interest here from Etymonline is that “wrack, wreck, rack, and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.”  And, again we see that same Germanic consonant pair <wr> that can imply twisting or distortion when initial in a word!

I bet you already see the Germanic consonantal combination in wrestle and can see the implication of twisting and distortion in this word’s meaning.  This word has a frequentative suffix <-le>, which means the action happens over and over.  The base wrest is from Old English wræstan “to twist, wrench.”  Once again, the <w> may no longer be pronounced, but it is marking that etymological connection to Old English and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Next up is wrist.  I bet YOU could tell ME about that <w> this time!  Yes, it IS from Old English.  It was spelled wrist and the notion was “the turning joint.”  In other words, the <w> is unpronounced and marks the etymological connection to its Old English roots and the <wr> combination here implies twisting and distortion.

Now let’s look at write.  It is from Old English writan “to score, outline, draw the figure of.”  Once again we have the <w> marking its connection to its language of origin, Old English, and that <wr> implying twisting and distortion.

The very last word on the list is wrong.  Surely this word will have a different story to tell.  Let’s see.  It’s from late Old English “twisted, crooked, wry.”  According to Etymonline, “the sense of not right, bad, immoral, or unjust was developed by c. 1300. Wrong thus is etymologically a negative of right, which is from Latin rectus, literally straight.”  You will recognize the Latinate base <rect> in the word correct!  As for the <w>?  It functions just like the <w> in playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, and write.  It marks the connection to the Old English heritage each word has.  And when paired with <r> in words of Germanic heritage, an initial <wr> often implies a twisting and distortion of some sort.

Here’s a list of the words once more with an explanation for the unpronounced letter in each:

read … the <a> is part of the digraph <ea> and as such is not an independent letter in this word.
crumb … the <b> marks a connection to other members of the word family in which it is pronounced, such as crumble and crumbling.
debt … the <b> marks a connection to the word’s root and related words in which the <b> is pronounced, such as debit.
lamb, dumb … in Modern English, the <mb> is considered an unpronounceable cluster and as such the final letter is unpronounced.
ascend, scene, science … the <sc> represents /s/, so the <c> is part of a digraph.
Wednesday … the <d> followed by an <n> caused the <d> to be elided (unpronounced).
reign … the <g> is unpronounced but marks a meaning connection to a related base <regn>.
anchor, architect, character, chord … the <h> is part of the <ch> digraph representing /k/ which signals a Hellenic heritage.
autumn, column … the <n> marks a connection to other members of the word’s family in which it is pronounced, such as autumnal and columnist.
psychology … the <ps> marks a Hellenic heritage.  When the <ps> is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
pneumonia … when the <pn> cluster is initial, the <p> is unpronounced.
receipt … the <p> is unpronounced in this word as well as in corps.  It is part of a small group of “borrowings and scribal tamperings” that have unpronounced letters.
mortgage … the <t> marks the historical language of origin (Latin) of <mort>.
build … the <u> is unpronounced and although there are ideas about the historical phonology, I could not find an agreed-upon explanation.
guess, guide … the <u> marks the “hard” pronunciation of the <g>.
sword … the <w> marks the language of origin (Old English) and a time when the <w> was pronounced.
playwright, wrap, wreck, wrestle, wrist, write, wrong … the <w> is part of the Germanic <wr> consonant cluster that implies twisting and distortion.

Labeling letters as silent is a problem.

The problem with calling a letter silent is that feels like an explanation to someone who is learning to read.  “Oh.  Don’t worry about the <g> in sign.  It’s a silent letter.  Just skip over it.”  That learner will probably become as complacent as the adults around him and not even look for an understanding as to WHY it is not pronounced in that word.  And, of course, by just moving on, thinking there is no reason for it to be there, they will miss out on understanding a whole lot about digraphs, markers, etymology, word families, and phonology.

Just imagine what it would be like if letters COULD talk.  What if they could each tell you their history or how pairing them up with other letters matters!  What if they could tell you that their coming together in a spelling is like music and the melody each word creates is in their sense and meaning!

Until then, let’s speak on their behalf.  Let’s not lump all unpronounced letters into one mislabeled group.  Unpronounced does not mean uninteresting or without purpose.  Let’s celebrate the history and individual awesomeness of each!

So what is the truth here?  Are these letters silent?  Sure they are.  But then again, so is every other letter in the alphabet.  A better attitude to instill in our young learners would be, “That letter isn’t pronounced?  Well, it MUST be there for a reason.  I wonder what it is?  Do you want to help me find out?”




A Simple Base Element That Has a Lot to Say

Today everyone grabbed a piece of paper. I asked them to put their name at the top and then to copy down the four words I had written on the board.  Once that was done, the students were to look carefully at the four words and identify the base that they all had in common.  Some spotted it right away.  That usually happens.  Hands went up right away, but I didn’t call on anyone.  I wanted each student (those who usually offer an answer and those who usually don’t) to think through what the base might be.
Once they had identified the base, they were asked to write word sums for each of the words.  One of the students said, “We’ve already got the words written down, so it will make sense to write analytic word sums.”  I just smiled and nodded.
Now I was ready to ask someone what they thought the base was, and how they came to that decision.  A student told me the base was <dict>.  He figured that out when comparing dictionary and dictator. They both had <dict> in common, but nothing beyond that.
I wrote the base <dict> on the board and next to it I wrote its denotation “say, tell”.  Right away the students started thinking about how each word was related to that meaning.  The hands shot up!  I said, “Pick any of the four words and tell me what it has to do with “say, tell”.
Kyla said, “A dictionary tells you what a word means.” I pointed to our rack of dictionaries and agreed that a certain kind of dictionary will do that.  What a great opportunity to talk about different kinds of dictionaries!  We know that the dictionaries we often refer to give us definitions of words.  We have a large collection of dictionaries in case what we are looking for is not listed in the first one we grab.  I even have a dictionary that has only words related to science!
But we also use the Online Etymological Dictionary almost daily, and that has a different purpose.  That dictionary gives us information about a word’s history.  We use it to find a word’s ancestors, and to learn its story.  We read about the ways a word has been used in its life.  We learn about spelling and/or meaning changes that have come about over time.  We also discover related words.  Sometimes it is valuable to cross reference words in our other etymological dictionaries as well.  I have copies of the Chambers Etymological Dictionary,  Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the Dictionary of English Down The Ages, and a Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms.
I showed them my Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short.  It is an old copy and well loved.  It is used when we want to find out more information about a Latin word.   I keep it on the shelf next to my Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott.  In both of these dictionaries, the words are listed in alphabetical order according to their respective alphabets!  These are valuable resources once one knows a bit about Latin and Greek.
Another kind of dictionary is one that one of our students carries – her Italian/English dictionary.  She speaks Italian and is learning English.  Just yesterday she was writing a poem.  Since she has only been in the U.S. since September, it is easier for her to think and write in Italian.  So she asked if she could write the poem in Italian and then translate it into English.  That system works well for her.  When she finishes, we look at it together, and I help with further editing.
I also have a few Rhyming Dictionaries on my shelf.   Students use these when they are writing rhyming poetry. By using this kind of dictionary, a student can often find a word that not only rhymes, but is a perfect fit!
Once we finished talking about dictionaries, we realized that we might want to revise our definition of a dictionary.  Katya said, “A dictionary lists words and gives us more information about them.”  Perfect.  And the type of information it tells us depends on the type of dictionary it is!
Megan said, “Isn’t that like saying what will happen, but you don’t really know for sure?”  Then Clayton added, “Like our Science Fair Projects.  We are making predictions, but we haven’t run the experiments yet.”  I extended  the sense of this word by including those times when we predict how a movie will end, when we’ve only just begun to watch it.
I asked if anyone was familiar with the prefix <pre>.  A few hands in each class went up, and the students said it had to do with “before”.  Then I asked, “Isn’t that cool?  The word itself is revealing its own meaning!  The base has a denotation of “say, tell” and the prefix has a sense of “before”.  We use this word when someone is telling about something before the something has happened!
There were very few fifth graders who clearly understood what a dictator was.  One or two mentioned that is was a person who told other people what to do.  I stepped in and explained that a dictator was a person who ruled a country and had absolute power over that country.  The most famous dictators in history were often cruel to the people they ruled.  They were more interested in having power.  Amelia asked, “So Hitler was a dictator?”  I told her that he was one of the worst dictators in history.  I told them that in the next few years they would also be hearing about Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung and others.
Next we talked about the <or> suffix on this word.  I told them it was signaling that this word is referring to a person.  An <or> suffix can do that in a number of words.  So a dictator is a person who dictates  orders to the people he rules.  An actor is a person who acts.  A governor is a person who governs.  A donor is a person who donates something.
Then I pointed out that the <er> suffix can sometimes behave in the same way.  A teacher is one who teaches.  A baker is one who bakes food.  A joker is one who makes jokes.  I could tell this was an idea they hadn’t thought about before.  They were intrigued.
When I asked about this word, only one person offered a guess.  Hyja said, “Doesn’t it have something to do with arguing?”  That was a great place to start!  When someone contradicts something someone else says, it can be thought of as a counter argument.  A contradiction is often saying the opposite or something very different than what has already been said.  For example, if I said that our science journals were due on Tuesday, and Aiden said they were in fact due on Saturday, I could ask him why he was contradicting me.  We both can’t be correct.
Now I pointed out the base <contra> “against”.  I compared the word contradict to contraband.  With the use of contradict, a person is saying something against or with an opposite feel of what has already been said.  With the use of contraband, there is a feeling of smuggling something.  When you bring an object into an area and you know that object has been forbidden to be in that area, you are going against the rule or the command.  That object is contraband.
Word sums
At this point, I asked students to come up to the board, choose one of the four words and write a word sum.
You’ll notice a space in the word sum where a plus sign was.  I erased it and shared that the first base in this compound word was <contra>.  Then I mentioned that given our discussions recently about the prefixes <con> and <com> and their assimilated forms, I could understand how the students might spot the <con> here and think it was a prefix.
The interesting follow up discussion we had here was with the first word sum.  Someone asked, “Is <a> even a connecting vowel?”  What a great question!  We were able to review that the Greek connecting vowel was <o>, and the Latin connecting vowels were <i>, <u>, and <e>.  We were also able to review the suffixing convention of replacing a final non-syllabic <e>.  I asked if we could remove the <or> suffix and still have a recognizable word.  Everyone agreed that we would be left with dictate.  So I asked how we would spell that.  Immediately students recognized the final non-syllabic <e> on the suffix <ate> that would be replaced with the <or> suffix in this word.
It is important to keep pointing out that a final non-syllabic <e> may not always show up in a final word, but that doesn’t mean it is not part of a word’s construction or word sum.
This activity was well received.  Students who have been hanging back, not expecting to understand this are starting to volunteer to write word sums at the board.  Students who are thoroughly enjoying this way of looking at words are asking amazing questions.  As we were discussing how the words were related in meaning to the base <dict>, Kayden raised his hand and asked, “How does the word addiction fit in to all this?”  He recognized that <ad> would be a prefix, <dict> would be a base, and <ion> would be a suffix.  I told him that the prefix <ad> brought a sense of “to” to the word.  And that a person with an addiction is a person who has declared a specific habit to be controlling in their life.
We didn’t delve all the way into this base today.  We didn’t make a matrix full of <dict> possibilities.  But we did practice using a list of words as evidence for proving a base element.  And we did practice taking the time to understand the meaning connections between members of a word family.  And we did review a suffixing convention as well as learn about two agent suffixes.  Today was about building our knowledge base.  It was about learning things to take with us as we move forward in studying other words and their families.