Isn’t it ionic?

This week I will be observing a lesson in a high school science class.  The lesson will focus on naming ionic compounds.  In preparation for this observation I asked to look over the reading materials the students will use.  Having very little background in chemistry beyond that of what fifth grade students are expected to understand, I found words being used that I didn’t clearly understand.  And, of course, knowing that if I want to increase my understanding of the lesson, I’ll need to understand the specific terminology, I did some word investigation.


At Etymonline I found out this.

The information tells us that this word was first attested in 1834.  That means that the first time we have written evidence of this word existing is in 1834.  And if you read further, you will see that it was coined by Michael Faraday on the suggestion by Rev. William Whewell and derived from the Greek word ion (ἰόν) which was a form of Greek ienai (ἰέναι) “go.”  It is common to find scientific names for things attested from 1500 to present.  During that time and in some cases even earlier, the Latin language was revived for scholarly and scientific purposes.  This time period and the idea of coining words using stems derived from Latin and Greek is called Modern Latin.  These words were coined in Modern Latin.

It is helpful to understand that the denotation of ‘ion’ is “go” because as it says at Etymonline, “ions move toward the electrode of opposite charge.”  To see if I could find some more etymology, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  The word ‘ion’ is defined as either a single atom, molecule, or a group that has a net electric charge.  It doesn’t matter whether that charge is positive or negative, only that that charge is a result of either the loss or addition of an electron.  Next I set out to find some related words.

ionic – <ion + ic>  “relating to or composed of ions.” adjective
ionically – <ion + ic + al + ly>  “relating to or composed of ions.”  adverb
ionicity – <ion + ic + ity> “the degree to which something is ionic.”
ionizer – <ion + ize + er>  “a device that helps an air purifier be more effective.”
ionogen – <ion + o + gen>  “a substance able to produce ions.”
ionography – <ion + o + graph + y>  “a form of printing in which a static electric charge draws toner particles from the drum to the paper.”
ionomer – <ion + o + mer>  “a polymer that contains ions.”
ionosphere – <ion + o + sphere>  “layer of the atmosphere that contains a high level of ions and reflects radio waves.”
ionopause – <ion + o + pause>  “the boundary layer of the ionosphere where it meets either the mesosphere at one side or the exosphere on its other.”
ionosonde – <ion + o + sonde>  “special radar used to examine the ionosphere.”
cation – <cat + ion>  “positively charged ion.”
anion – <an + ion> “negatively charged ion.”

You will notice that the only two words on my matrix that form a compound word with ‘ion’ being the second base are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’.  A closer look at these two words brings with it many interesting finds!


The Etymonline entry is interesting.

Notice that the word ‘anode’ is bolded.  When I see that, I always follow such a word to find out more.  In this case, I see that ‘anode’ is first attested in 1834.  As is the case with ion, cation, anode, and cathode, the word was proposed by Rev. William Whewell and published by Michael Faraday.  It’s pretty obvious that these two were needing to name components of what they were studying and finding!  The first base is derived from Greek ana “up”, and the second base is derived from Greek hodos “way, path, track.”

According to Wikipedia, “An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device.”  This definition makes sense if we think about the literal translation of ‘anode’ as “up a path or way.”  If ‘cathode’ is the electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device, then I’m guessing that the first base in ‘cathode’ must have a denotation of down.  According to Etymonline, <cat> is indeed derived from Greek kata “down.”   So in this case, as the current enters the device it is on its way up (anode),  and when it leaves it is on its way down (cathode).

Back to ‘anion’.  This word has a literal translation of “go up.”   An anion has more electrons than protons, so it is negatively charged.  You might say that the number of electrons is what “goes up” in an anion.


Here is the Etymonline entry.

Are you noting the same year of attestation once again?  And the same scientists who coined this word?  Another interesting thing to note is written right after the date of attestation (1834).  It says that ‘cation’ is from a Latinized form of Greek kation “going down.”  It is a Latinized form because the Roman scribes wrote the Greek letter kappa as a <c>.  Since we now know that an ‘anion’ has more electrons than protons and has a literal sense of “go up”, it makes sense to think of a cation as having less electrons than protons (positive charge).  The number of electrons is what “goes down” in an cation.

A word about the pronunciation of anion and cation.

It might be tempting to pronounce ‘anion’ similarly to ‘onion’ and ‘cation’ to what we hear in the portmanteau word ‘staycation’.  But we would only be tempted to do that because of the commonly used suffix <-ion>!  When the <-ion> suffix is added to a word like ‘one’, we end up with ‘onion’.  The IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘onion’ is /ˈʌnjən/.  The IPA representation for ‘anion’ is /ˈænaɪən/.  Compare this pronunciation to that of ‘ion’, /ˈaɪən/.  Do you see what is similar?  The <ion> base is pronounced differently than the <-ion> suffix!  Let’s see if it is the same with ‘cation’.  If we think of the pronunciation of ‘staycation’, we would represent it with IPA like this /steɪˈkeɪʃən/.  But the IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘cation’ is /ˈkædˌaɪən/.  If you compare this with the pronunciation of ‘ion’, you will once again notice that the base <ion> is not pronounced the same as the <-ion> suffix!

Where else do we see this Hellenic base <cat>?

cataclysm – <cata + clysm>  “wash down.”  Originally a flood, now a large-scale or violent event.
catalog – <cata + log>  “list down.”  Also spelled <catalogue>.
cataplexy – <cata + plexy>  “strike down.”  An example is when an animal pretends it’s dead.
catarrh – <cata + rrh> “flowing down.”  It is inflammation and discharge from a head cold.
catastrophe – <cata + strophe>  “turning down.”  It is the reverse of what is expected.
catatonic – <cata + tone + ic>  “toned down.”  A mental illness in which the person is immobile in both movement and behavior.
catabolic – <cata + bole + ic>  “thrown down.”  According to Wikipedia it is the breaking-down aspect of metabolism.

There are other words that also have this Helenic base, and its sense and meaning isn’t just limited to “down.”  I just included a few words with that specific sense so we could easily connect it to what we see in ‘cation’.

Where else do we see this Hellenic base <ana>?

anadromous – <ana + drome + ous>  “running upward.”  An example is fish going upstream to spawn.  (The <drome> base “run” is the same as in ‘dromedary’)
analeptic – <ana + lept + ic>  “take up.”  A drug that restores your health.
analysis – <ana + lysis>  “loosen up.”  A loosening of something complex into smaller segments.
anabolic – <ana + bole + ic>  “thrown up.”  According to Wikipedia it is the building-up aspect of metabolism.

Like <cata>, <ana> isn’t just limited to one sense and meaning.  I chose words with this base and this sense so we could more easily see the connections to ‘anion’.

I always find it helpful to collect more information about words I’ve heard, but am not completely familiar with.  When I saw similar words like anode and anion, and also cathode and cation, I knew that I would need to understand both bases in each of these compound words in order to keep their meanings straight.  I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ has to do with a path or track.  An anode is the electrode through which the electrical current enters a polarized electrical device, and a cathode is the electrode through which the current leaves.  I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anion’ and ‘cation’ has to do with movement.  An anion has more electrons than protons and is negatively charged.  A cation has more protons than electrons and is positively charged.

Knowing that <ana> has a denotation of “up” helps me picture an arrow pointed up indicating that the number of electrons is higher than that of the protons in an anion.  Knowing that <cata> has a denotation of “down” helps me picture an arrow pointed down, indicating that the number of electrons is lower than that of the protons in an cation.

Now I feel better prepared to learn about naming ionic compounds.

It’s the Principles of the Thing


When we decide to explore any of the sciences, we expect to dive deep. We expect to examine what others have already discovered, we expect to find out things we didn’t know before, and we expect to be enlightened by those findings.  If we are testing some established scientific principle or a student hypothesis about the way things work, we think like scientists.  We follow some form of the Scientific Method.  We do this so that some one else might repeat our experiment if they wanted and get the result we got.  In other words, our results would be verifiable because our methods were consistent.

This same idea is at the very core of Structured Word Inquiry.  It is inherent in its three basic principles.

Many people think they are “doing SWI” because they teach prefixes and suffixes, because they teach Greek and Latin roots, or because they have some information on a word’s etymology ready for their older students.  If you are not treating word study as a science, you are not “doing SWI.”  If you are using a boxed program, you are no doubt following someone else’s idea of what is appropriate for your students based merely on their age.  How can that possibly reflect a student’s natural curiosity and support that student’s flow in thinking, questioning, proving/falsifying, and understanding?  It can’t.  It can’t because it cannot possibly follow all three principles of Structured Word Inquiry.

So what does it mean to treat spelling/word study as a science?  How is that different from what is being done in other practices?  What are those three principles and why are they so important?

Here they are.  These are the three guiding principles of Structured Word Inquiry.  They are something I keep in mind as I plan the starting point of each inquiry with my students.  Just to be clear, these are not principles I thought of.  These are the principles Dr. Peter Bowers developed as he was seeking to further define Structured Word Inquiry and what its implementation with students means exactly.  I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘inquiry’ and even ‘structured’ is becoming part of more and more literacy programs.  But what exactly do those words mean in those contexts?  What do those words mean in the context of SWI?  That is what Dr. Bowers set out to clarify with these principles.

  1.  The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
  2.  The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
  3.  Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.

If you are not familiar with Structured Word Inquiry or where it started, I encourage you to visit Dr. Pete Bowers’ website.  A much more thorough accounting, including links to research that supports SWI can be found here at WordWorksKingston.  Structured Word Inquiry describes the instruction Dr. Bowers used when he ran a grade 4-5 morphological intervention with John Kirby in 2010.  It is important to note that he was “using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction.”  After running the intervention and writing about their findings, Dr. Bowers knew how important it would be to carefully describe the underlying and crucial supports of Structured Word Inquiry.

The three guiding principles are different than the four questions that guide an actual structured word inquiry.  They are foundational.  They must be adhered to in order to conduct a structured word inquiry.  Without the principles, as I’ve said earlier, this is just another program that becomes automatic and routine over time when compared to the unpredictable discovery and inquisitive nature of true structured word inquiry.

This idea of treating spelling as a science probably sounds weird because we have been taught that there is nothing more to know about a word except how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means.  You may be wondering what there is to investigate.  What would we even be looking for?  But here is where structured word inquiry differs from other programs or boxed kits.  The point of structured word inquiry is to show the child how to use scientific rigor and resources to prove to themselves why words are spelled the way they are.  You won’t find other approaches explaining the why.  They may explain what is, but not WHY what is, is.  That takes orthographic science!

Let’s take a closer look at each of these important principles.


1) The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.

I remember reading this principle for the first time and thinking, “Whatever.  How can that be?”  I listened to and read everything else being presented to me and kind of ignored this principle.  I ignored it because of the dissonance it created in my head.  Thinking back on my own schooling, I recall all the time I spent memorizing a word’s spelling,  all the time I spent looking up definitions of words, and finally, all the time I spent figuring out how to remember which word went with which definition.  Now I was supposed to believe that the spelling of a word represents its meaning?  “Whatever.  How can that be?”

Fully believing in this principle has happened slowly for me because, well, old beliefs are sometimes embedded deeper than we think.  Over and over I saw the proof, but still looked askance at this principle.  How could it be true?  Because I was wrangling with this principle, it was always on my mind.  Without intentionally doing so, I began to collect my own bank of evidence.

What I thought I knew was that spelling was about pronunciation.  I grew up being told to sound out words if I asked how they were spelled.  As a teacher I’ve told hundreds of students to do the same.  Sitting back and reflecting on all of the times a word couldn’t be successfully spelled in that manner – by sounding it out, was Exhibit A.  If spelling was there to represent pronunciation, why were there so many exceptions – so many words that couldn’t be spelled correctly by being sounded out?

Exhibit B was the nagging sense of failure I felt in 18 years of teaching for not being able to provide my students with any real understanding about spelling.  Every book I used, every piece of curricular material I was handed focused on spelling and its correlation to prominent vowel sounds in words.  I always ended up saying, “No one knows why words are spelled the way they are.  You’ll just have to memorize them.”  Dictionaries were dreaded resources in my classroom.  No one wanted to tackle one of those.  Students begged me, “Just tell me how to spell it.  Please?”  When I asked colleagues for help, I was made to feel as if I was the problem – I wasn’t teaching the spelling curriculum as presented – with fidelity.  But I read through the teaching guide many times.  The understanding I longed for wasn’t there.

The third piece of evidence (Exhibit C) was something pointed out to me. (And ever since, I can’t  un-see it).  It was the fact that pronunciation in word families shifts all the time.  Just think of how we pronounce courage and courageous; demonstrate and demonstrative; real and reality; heal and health; please and pleasure.  If spelling was primarily supposed to help with pronunciation, why wasn’t each pair of these words spelled differently?  A suffix was added and the pronunciation changed!  Take note that the basic part of each word in these pairs is spelled the same regardless of that change in pronunciation.   This particular exhibit of evidence is compelling to me.  It reminds me of the genus and species names that scientists use.  There are common names for most organisms on this earth, but those vary from location to location (kind of like accents and dialects with language).  By using the genus and species name for an organism, scientists have a common language.  They know which organism is being referred to with certainty.  The fact that we don’t shift the spelling of a word every time we shift its pronunciation is heavy duty proof that the spelling represents something other than pronunciation.  It represents the meaning that we (no matter where we live, no matter what our dialect or regional peculiarities) seek in order to communicate with one another.

Of course, there is more evidence out there.  Exhibit D might be the Homophone Principle which states that when two words are pronounced the same but mean different things, wherever possible they will have different spellings to represent those different meanings.  Think of the homophones blue and blew; right and write; flower and flour; see and sea; poor and pour.  We recognize that although each set of words has the same pronunciation, the two words are not spelled alike to mark their different meanings!  I’ll say that again.  Their spelling indicates to the reader that they do not share meaning.

These days when I am explaining this principle to others, and they give me that look that I recognize as hesitance, I present the above evidence.  Because it is the most compelling to me, I make sure to present what I have explained as Exhibit C.  I use examples such as the word family for <sign>.  There is the obvious lack of pronunciation of the <g> in family members <sign>, <assignment>, and <signer>, but then the <g> IS pronounced in <signature>, <designate>, and <signal>.  Beyond that, the <s> has an unexpected pronunciation as /z/ in <design> and <designate>.  Once more, the spelling is the consistent piece because it is representing the sense and meaning of the base!  All of the words in this family have a sense and meaning of “a mark with some special importance.”


2) The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.

The first time I read this principle I was ready to accept it.  I was almost relieved.  For years I had been hoping that English wasn’t as illogical and unpredictable as people kept saying (continue to say).  You see, I love words.  I always have.  I just haven’t understood them in the way I do now.  Now I have images and stories and depth and connections that I never had before.  In the same way that I delight in turning that first page of a new book, I now delight in looking at a new word or finding out something new about an old word.

Knowing that English spelling is well-ordered and reliable enough to face the rigors of scientific investigation brings an amazing sense of calm and eagerness  to my classroom.  There is no dread in knowing we are studying words on a certain day.  There is only joy and anticipation.  The frustration and distress disappeared because the judgement regarding being right or wrong about a spelling disappeared.  It may sound weird to hear me say this, but the focus with structured word inquiry isn’t completely on the spelling.  As we are understanding the spelling, as we are seeing these reliable and well-ordered conventions of English spelling over and over, it feels to the student as if their spelling has significantly improved without them having to focus on it specifically.  They are never asked to memorize the spelling of a word, yet they are able to spell words that they haven’t been able to spell before.  For some it has felt effortless.  That ability comes from the fact that they now understand the word’s spelling.  In the past, when they have been asked to memorize spellings, there was no rhyme or reason for them.  It was a string of letters.  Words with several vowels were particularly hard because no one could satisfactorily explain their order.

An especially liberating truth inherent in this principle is that calling words irregular, oddball, tricky, devil or the like doesn’t make them so.  Every time I hear someone call a word tricky or say something as ridiculous as “This word is misbehaving and needs to be put in jail,” I shake my head.  Here we have adults who don’t understand the spelling of a certain word, making fun of the word for that.  It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t understand your spelling.  It doesn’t fit what I’ve been taught about words.”  So instead of questioning what they’ve been taught, they single out the word and call it names.  I’ve been in the classroom a long time.  Think about what some children do to other children who are in some way different than themselves.  Instead of trying to understand the difference, one child makes fun of the other.  Isn’t that just what is happening here?


3) Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.

The idea of investigating words as a scientist might is so appealing to me!  After all, I have organized our school’s fifth grade science fair for 25 years now.  I know a thing or two about using a consistent framework for a scientific  investigation.  A scientist wouldn’t dream of drawing conclusions based on someone else’s say so.  A scientist conducts their own research, and keeps careful notes to track their investigation.  A scientist is thorough and looks at a problem from many angles, seeking to have a broad understanding before zeroing in on a specific aspect.  By using the four questions of structured word inquiry, spelling scientists follow a similar deep dive to understand English spelling.

The importance of this principle must not be underestimated.  If it is true that scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works, then I want my students to be able to use scientific inquiry to see it for themselves.   I need to teach my students which tools to use and which questions to ask.  They need to know how to use the relevant information in the resources to provide evidence to either support or falsify their hypotheses about English spelling.  This is where boxed programs or scripted curriculums fall short.  Completely and unfortunately short.  The questions are already posed … by the creators of the program.  The students are walked through the lessons and asked to answer questions they didn’t ask.  Such programs are not designed to accommodate the unpredictability of a child’s path of thinking.  Structured Word Inquiry on the other hand embraces and celebrates that unpredictability.  Teachable moments present themselves every day and in meaningful ways.  The students are engaged and fascinated because they are part of what drives the learning.  They are not passive receivers of lessons who are told what to think and then given time to memorize things that don’t make sense to them.

A huge part of my learning community is my classroom.  In this room I am a passionate learner.  I think out loud at times to model the types of questions that might help my students during an inquiry.  I guide the students in the right direction when I can see they are stuck.  And as often as possible, I turn the “figuring-out part”, the “decision-making-based-on-the-evidence-collected part” of the investigation back on the students.  The inquiries carried out by the students yield learning for all of us.  When that happens, we all feel exhilarated.

Students find it refreshing that I don’t have a teacher manual and as a result, don’t always know the answers.  I often tell them that my very favorite questions are the ones I can’t answer.  In a very big way, it lifts the burden that most children feel about guessing what the teacher wants you to say in a given discussion.  It lifts the burden of having to have a right answer when joining a discussion.  Students no longer worry about being embarrassed for giving a wrong answer because if we use scientific inquiry, there is no right or wrong answer.  There is no judgement attached to a thought shared.  Instead, students propose hypotheses about word structure or other aspects of English spelling.  There is only what we can prove, what we cannot prove, and what we can falsify.  This is an amazing difference from what is experienced in other classrooms (from what was experienced in my own spelling classroom prior to 2012).  It provides an atmosphere in which there is a willingness to participate and ask questions.  You see, so much of the learning takes place during those classroom discussions and during presentations of a particular investigation. THAT is when information is settling and synthesizing with other information, forming or strengthening an existing understanding.  For the last two years, this has been our classroom mantra:

When you are looking for answers, you are looking to settle your question.  Once you find that answer, you are done with the question.  You don’t go back and ask it again.  You move on.  This principle of using scientific inquiry demands that we not seek answers.  We seek to understand something.  The question remains open.  Even when we are satisfied with our understanding, we are open to noticing something that will bring that question back to the foreground.  We will reconsider what it is we understand and how the new information affects it.  With other programs, children are filled with facts as if they are buckets.  There is so much the student is asked to memorize whether it makes sense to them or not.

Structured Word Inquiry gives the student the consistent procedure, the framework of these principles, and the opportunity to see for themselves – to prove to themselves – to build that understanding for themselves.  There is no program or approach or preset curriculum that can do that.  This principle of using scientific inquiry is what sets Structured Word Inquiry apart.  It is what disqualifies it from being called a program or an approach.  It is simply scientific inquiry.  It is the same scientific inquiry that led to us finding out the world is round.  It is how we found out about gravity, germs, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, the mating dance of Sandhill cranes, the phases of the moon, the layers of the atmosphere, and the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle.  Each discovery or understanding began with a question and a scientist who pursued it.  And the pursuit was teeming with scientific thinking.

It is the way we can learn about English spelling too.  Just make sure your toes are soundly buried in the sands of these three Structured Word Inquiry Principles before investigating anything.



“Science is Simply the Word We Use to Describe a Method of Organizing Our Curiosity” … Tim Minchin

Our 5th Grade Science Fair was five days ago, and still I am surrounded by feelings of exhilaration, and great pride.  To guide (and sometimes gently push) ten year old children through the process of a scientific inquiry is a challenge.  To guide (and sometimes gently push) 65 ten year old children through the process of a scientific inquiry is an even bigger challenge!  But at this point in time, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again starting tomorrow!  Why?  Because of what I have seen on their faces during this last week.

Look at that smile!  There’s a new layer of confidence built into that smile.  There is an amazing sense of accomplishment right behind it, a head full of experiment-inspired questions in the brain above it, and a heart that beats with pride below it.

Each student’s eyes have been opened in a way that only understanding something for yourself can do.  Those same eyes spent the evening looking with earnestness into the eyes of listening adults in an effort to connect with them in a scholarly way.  And from this day forward, those same eyes are ready to see many things in the world around them with a fresh and wondering engagement.

Yes, their feet hurt from standing so much of the day.  That was expected.  But their cheeks also were sore.  They were sore from smiling and laughing with their classmates – their friends.  For this was a bonding experience.  They didn’t realize it until the day of the fair when each could see that the others worked just as hard, did just as much research, put in just as much time, and were just as excited to share their project as they were.  Their Science Fair t shirts further identified them as members of the fifth grade scientific community.  The name badges they each wore (so that their assigned VIP could find them) were designed by the students.  The advertisements found around the school were designed by the students.  This was their Fair.  This was their celebration.  This was their moment to be the teachers, the guides, the knowledgeable ones.  And they loved it.

Like any multi-step weeks long project, the experience has changed these children.  It changed the way they see each other.  It changed the way they see themselves.  They did this thing – this experiment – this thing they thought they could not do.  And it wasn’t until the last week when they were typing up everything and making graphs and putting together their Science Fair Posterboards that they realized how worthy their project was and how excited (but still a bit scared) that they were to share it.

They explained their projects to each other (visiting each homeroom) from 10:30 am to 12:00pm.  Then we set up in the cafeteria and they explained their projects to others in the school (1st through 4th grade) from 1:30pm to 2:45pm.  Lastly, they explained their projects to parents, families, and friends from 5:30 pm to 7:00pm.  At either the afternoon or evening session, each student had the full attention of an assigned VIP.  (I do not judge this Science Fair.  Instead I invite community members, most with ties to science and/or children to come as VIP’s.  This way each child can expect at least one adult that is not their teacher, their parent, or their grandparent to listen and comment on their project.)

Yes, for some students there were unpleasant moments during the first two weeks of turning in journals (required in order to keep me updated on progress and/or answering questions).  I’m sure that a few parents needed to nudge in the early and middle stages as well.  But this is a project that gets more interesting the more research you do and the further along you get.  By the third week, students not only handed in their journal on their assigned day, they also stopped to tell me how much fun they were having and what was happening!  (Since I am the science teacher to all fifth grade students, I collect journals from one homeroom on Tuesdays, from another on Wednesdays, and from the last on Thursdays.  That way I can keep up with reading and commenting in each journal.  As you can imagine, it is imperative that the students get feedback, encouragement, and guidance throughout this project.)

One student shared that in her case, she learned that sometimes your experiment needs to be redesigned. She was interested in whether or not cats have a dominant paw, similar to how people have either a right hand or left hand preference.  She sat down and thought of five tests she would carry out with three of their cats.  She would do each test 30 times with each cat and then look at the data.  The next week, her journal had that plan crossed out and a new plan written in of testing only two cats (a male and a female) a reduced number of tests.  I asked her what made her change her plan.  “My cats won’t do it!  I had to change to something two of my cats will actually do!”

In the end, she was disappointed that her cats wouldn’t cooperate with her original plan.  She was also disappointed that her results didn’t clearly answer her original question.  Or rather, she was disappointed that her findings showed that neither cat had a decidedly dominant paw.  She felt as if her project was a failure.  But it wasn’t!  Not at all!  Her project was one of my favorites because it gave us so much to talk about!  Having to redesign is part of what scientists do when they realize that the first design is unrealistic as it applies to the situation.  Then we talked about the time frame her project would need if she were to collect the kind and amount of data that would satisfy a scientist probing this very question.  Having tested only two cats, she simply hadn’t collected enough data to know for sure if gender was a factor or if a number of other cats would test the same. She decided she’d have to test many males and the same number of females.  The more data collected, the better.  That would take much more time than the five week time frame we worked with would have allowed.  Because of her experience, this student now has a better understanding of what a true scientific investigation would look like!

As I was making my way around and looking at each Science Fair presentation, I found this gem on someone’s board.  I’d say this student received some wonderful advice from her wise parents!

So many of the parents helped in this way.  They nudged when they needed to, encouraged throughout, supported the thinking their child was doing, and made sure their child had the materials to complete the project.  For many it was an opportunity to share ideas for problem solving and reinforcement of following a procedure.  The students who had that parent/guardian help were lucky indeed.  Check out this student’s hydraulic claw!

I love the Science Fair.  I can never predict who will shine brightly in the end.  Students take their project where they are willing to take their project.  Some dig deeper than others.  In the end, (no matter how much help others claim a particular parent did), it is the student standing there explaining and defending the evidence collected and the findings.  It is the student that has learned that following a protocol, applying consistent effort,  researching their topic, collecting data, and making observations yields results that are reliable and credible.  And when you have results that are reliable and credible, people are interested in what you have to say.  My students now believe in themselves a bit more than before.  I truly believe that.  Check out the video below and see if you don’t agree with me!  This, my friends, is what memorable learning looks like!

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”  Albert Einstein

“Button up your overcoat when the wind is free….” Ruth Etting

It’s all well and good that we can put on an extra layer when the wind gets chilly and the temperatures drop, but what do the wild animals do?  How do they cope with the heavy snow and freezing temperatures?  That is the focus of the article I read recently.  It’s called “Do Wild Animals Hate Being Cold in Winter?”  It was published in Popular Science, written by Bridgette B. Baker.  You can read it at THIS LINK.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but notice a number of words that share the base <therm>.

“In fact, wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets.”

“One winter challenge for warm-blooded animals, or endotherms, as they’re scientifically known, is to maintain their internal body temperature in cold conditions. Interestingly though, temperature-sensing thresholds can vary depending on physiology. For instance, a cold-blooded—that is, ectothermic—frog will sense cold starting at a lower temperature compared to a mouse. Recent research shows that hibernating mammals, like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, don’t sense the cold until lower temperatures than endotherms that don’t hibernate.”

“Many cold-climate endotherms exhibit torpor: a state of decreased activity. They look like they are sleeping. Because animals capable of torpor alternate between internally regulating their body temperature and allowing the environment to influence it, scientists consider them heterotherms.”

Most people will acknowledge these are interesting words.  But when summarizing the information, they will skip using them and go back to using simpler, more familiar language.  Often the thought is that these words are too tough for children to remember (especially if the adult doesn’t really understand what they mean).  What if instead of skipping using them, we investigated them further?  What if we looked closer at the sense, the meaning and the function of the morphemes in each of these words?  We have here an opportunity to understand scientific terminology AND word families better!


Let’s begin by looking at <hypothermia>.  It was first attested in 1877 and is from Modern Latin.  When something is noted as being Modern Latin, that means that the word was created by scientists who needed a name for something. They didn’t just make up a name, but rather they looked back to Latin and Greek for what to call it.  The word <hypothermia> did not exist in Greek, but the stems <hypo> “under” and <therm> “heat” did.  The <-ia> suffix indicates that this word is an abstract noun.  If you look at the denotation of the base <therm> “heat” and the denotation that the base <hypo> “under” has, you can see that the word itself tells you that hypothermia is when something is under it’s normal level of heat.  If a person has hypothermia, their body temperature is lower than it should be.  The base <therm> is from Greek θερμός (transcribed as thermos).

What about this base <hypo>?  It is from Greek ύπό (transcribed as hypo) and has a denotation of “under.”  Have we seen this in other familiar words?  What about a hypothesis, which is the groundwork for an investigation.  Do you recognize the denotation of “under” in hypothesis, as in an underlying position?  It is also in hypodermic, which is the area just under the skin.  That gives you a better sense of where a hypodermic needle is used, doesn’t it?  And what about hypotenuse, which is the side of a triangle that is opposite the right angle.  It has a sense of being stretched under the right angle.


When I looked for <endotherms>,  I was lead to <endothermic>.  Etymonline notes that this word was first attested in 1866 and was formed by adding <endo-> and <thermal>.  The suffix <-ic> indicates that the word is an adjective.  The suffix <-al> can indicate the same thing.  When I look at the entry for <thermal>, I learned that the first time it was used to mean “a sense of heat” was in 1837.  So using <-al> is older than the use of <-ic> with this base.

So what about the base <endo->?  It is from Greek ένδον (transcribed as endon) and has a sense of “inside, internal”.  When you pair up <endo> “internal” and <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that endotherms are organisms that regulate their heat from inside themselves.

We see this base in endoscopy which is when a doctor uses a camera and light attached to a flexible tube to examine your esophagus, stomach, and/or intestines.  In other words, the doctor is looking at your internal organs.

This base is also in endoskeleton which is the internal skeleton structure that all vertebrates have.

My dogs are endotherms.  So am I.


There was not a specific entry for  <ectotherms> at Etymonline, but there was an entry for <ecto->.  It is from Greek έκτός (transcribed as ecktos) and has a denotation of “outside, external.”  It is related to the prefix <ex-> “out”, but they are not the same.  When you pair up <ect> “outside” with <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that ectotherms are organisms whose body heat is regulated by their environment (outside themselves).

I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find related words.  This base is found in science words like ectotrophic.  An example of that is when tissues form on the outside of a root and are being nourished by that root.  Interestingly enough, the opposite of ectotropic is endotrophic!  That is when one organism is getting nourishment from within another organism.

We also see this base in ectocrine which is described as an organic substance that is released from the outer layer of an organism that will effect other organisms in the environment in either a good or bad way.  It will come as no surprise to you that this word is the opposite of endocrine, which is a gland having an internal secretion.  So in one case the secretion is external, and in the other it is internal.

Turtles and snakes are ectotherms.  They bask in the sun to get heat.


There wasn’t a specific entry for <heterotherms> at Etymonline, but there was an entry for <hetero->.  It comes from Greek ’έτερος (transcribed as heteros) with a denotation of “one of two”.  When you pair up <heter> “one of two” with <therm> “heat”, you can see that the word itself tells you that heterotherms are animals that can regulate their own heat AND also have their heat regulated by their environment.  Here’s something interesting that I found at Wikipedia:

“Regional heterothermy describes organisms that are able to maintain different temperature “zones” in different regions of the body. This usually occurs in the limbs, and is made possible through the use of counter-current heat exchangers, such as the rete mirabile found in tuna and certain birds. These exchangers equalize the temperature between hot arterial blood going out to the extremities and cold venous blood coming back, thus reducing heat loss. Penguins and many arctic birds use these exchangers to keep their feet at roughly the same temperature as the surrounding ice. This keeps the birds from getting stuck on an ice sheet.”

Chinstrap Penguin with snow in its mouth

“Chinstrap Penguin with snow in its mouth” by Liam Quinn is licensed under CC by-sa 2.0

Here is a matrix of the words we have looked at:

You will notice that all the base elements are bolded.  The connecting vowel <o> and the suffixes are not.  That means that there are four compound words represented on this matrix:

<hypothermia –> hypo + therm + ia>
(or variations such as hypothermic or hypothermal)
<ectothermal –> ect + o + therm + ic>
(or variations such as ectotherm or ectotherms)
<endotherms –> end + o + therm + s>
(or variations such as endotherm or endothermic)
<heterotherm –> heter + o + therm>
(or variations such as heterotherms or heterothermal)

You may not be familiar with a connecting vowel, so let me explain a bit about them.  They are used to connect two bases (as they are doing in three of the four words above), but they can also connect a base to a suffix or a suffix to another suffix.

My favorite example of a compound word with an obvious connecting vowel is <speedometer>.  We instantly recognize the two bases here because they are both free bases.  We also recognize that the <o> doesn’t belong to either one!  It is simply connecting them.  The <o> can be used because the second base <meter> is from Greek μέτρον (transcribed as metron) “measure”.  The first base is not from Greek. It is from Old English sped.  The sense and meaning “rate of motion or progress” is from c.1200.  The fact that one of the bases is from Greek and one is from Old English makes this word a Germanic hybrid!

Have you noticed that in the above matrix not all of the words have an <o> connecting vowel?  How do I know that the <o> at the end of <hypo> is not a connecting vowel?  I start by doing some research.  If you skim back through the paragraphs in this post, you will find that the origins of the bases are as follows:

<therm> – Greek θερμός (transcribed as thermos)
<hypo> – Greek ύπό (transcribed as hypo)
<end> – Greek ένδον (transcribed as endon)
<ect> – Greek έκτός (transcribed as ecktos)
<heter> – Greek ’έτερος (transcribed as heteros)

Notice that three of the four have the same Greek suffix.  That <os> suffix is called the nominative suffix.  If I remove it, I see the stem that then came into English as a base.  There is one word that has a Greek <on> genitive suffix.  If I remove it, I see the stem that then came into English as a base.  Those four bases entered English without the <o>.  We can also notice that the words we’re looking at today were coined by scientists who needed a word to describe something they were working on.  Oftentimes they joined the Greek (or Latin) bases (that fit best in the context of what they were doing) with a connecting vowel.

I know that <hypo> does not have a connecting vowel because it does not have a Greek suffix that could be removed.  This present day base was a preposition in Greek.  If you look in the OED, you can find several entries for <hypo> as a free base noun.

The bottom line

As you read through this post, I hope your sense of these bases deepened.  When I do this with children, it’s not that I want them to remember every word we talk about.  It’s more that I want them to take an invisible thread and connect each base or morpheme that we focus on to the words in which it is used.  I want them to see that every word is not completely new and unique.  Words belong to families, and the key to understanding an unfamiliar word is by recognizing one or more of its morphemes and being able to recall some related words to help with remembering the sense and meaning that the words share.

The matrix I created above focuses on the words from the article that had the base <therm> in common.  The joy of matrices is that they can be used for what you need them to be used for.  They don’t need to contain every possible word that shares the base (probably impossible anyway).  I love when one of my students presents a matrix they made to the rest of the class and another student asks, “Could such and such a word be added to that matrix?”  The person who created the matrix doesn’t have to feel embarrassed because they missed something.  There is no expectation that a great matrix has x number of words!  A word matrix is a starting point.  It is a thought provoker and a discussion starter.  When another student suggests a word that could be added, it proves that the students in the audience are engaged and thinking about this particular family.  That is a thing to celebrate!

That being said, a fuller matrix is really fun to look at once in a while.  Once you start thinking about this base <therm>, you start wondering what other words you know that share the base.  Have fun thinking about the words represented below.  Do you recognize the bases we just studied?  Do you recognize the others?  Are you familiar with the suffixes? Are you noticing that a connecting vowel is used to connect bases  where <therm> is the second base?  Are you noticing that a connecting vowel is used to connect bases where <therm> is the first base?  Are you aware that any word that contains two or more bases is a compound word?  Do you know the denotations of the bases I haven’t talked about?

I encourage you to use Etymonline as a starting point.  Find out what the bases mean independently, and then find out how we currently use the word by looking in a modern dictionary.  Sometimes I like to search for an image as well to further deepen my understanding.  Notice how the connecting vowel is pronounced in thermographic, thermoluminescence, thermostat, and thermosphere.  Then notice how there is a shift in stress, which changes the way we pronounce that connecting vowel in thermography and thermometer.  Interesting, right?  The pronunciation changes, but the spelling and the meaning does not.  An orthographic truth you can count on!

A warm send off

Well, this here endotherm is going to put on thermal underwear so she doesn’t have to turn up the thermostat.  I wish we had geothermal energy, but we don’t.  Staying warm might prevent the need for a thermometer should she take a chill.  Once she’s dressed in layers, she can gaze out the window and imagine that she can see all the way to the thermosphere.

“It’s cold out there, colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre, on a Saturday night.” – Tom Waits

I woke up this morning to a temperature of -26 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of -48 degrees or so.  That’s cold.  The meterologists are calling this a polar vortex.  But what is that exactly?

According to an article at Business Insider called A Polar Vortex is Engulfing the US.  Here’s what that really means and why these events might be getting more common , “The term polar vortex describes the mass of low-pressure cold air that circulates in the stratosphere above the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Sometimes the circulation of the polar vortex weakens during the winter, causing surges of frigid air to splinter off and drift south. The freezing air is carried by the jet stream, a current of wind that extends around the hemisphere and divides the air masses in the polar region from those farther south. ”

In the picture above (here is a link to InsideClimate News), you can see the difference between a stable polar vortex and a wavy polar vortex.  What is happening in my state today is not typical.  The jet stream is weak and because of it warm air moves north in spots and cold air moves south in others.

The image used to indicate the polar vortex is interesting.  There is this sense of swirling movement.  Now I’m curious about the word <vortex>.  What other words is it related to?  Off to Etymonline I go!

It was first attested (first time we see this word in print) in the 1650’s.  At that time it was used to mean “whirlpool, eddying mass.” Earlier than that it was from Latin vortex, a variant spelling of vertex “an eddy of water, wind, or flame; whirlpool; whirlwind.”  The Latin variant vertex is from the stem of the Latin infinitive vertere “to turn.”

Using what I know about the principle parts of the Latin verb (verto, vertere, verti, versus), I spot the two Latin stems that have become modern English bases (<vert> and <verse>).  Now I can list words that share these bases and this denotation of “turn, turn around.”  Stop and think about each of the following words.  Do you see this base and do you sense the denotation in the word’s present day meaning?

adverse                anniversary

avert                     controversy

divert                    convert

extrovert               invert

reverse                  transverse

universe                versatile

versus                    vertebra


There are more, of course, but I just wanted to give you an idea of the connectedness of these words that share a base and a denotation – words that form a family.  I’ve colored coded the two bases because even though these two bases derive from the same Latin verb, they are spelled different and would need to be represented on two different matrices.  They are etymological relatives.

Back to <vortex>

But let’s get back to <vortex>.  Does it have any interesting morphological relatives (meaning words from the same ancestor that share the same base spelling presently)?  For this I went to Word Searcher first.  Besides vortex, vortices and vortexes, I found cavort, cavorts, cavorted, and cavorting.  Hmmm.  They might share a base, but a <ca> prefix?  I’m not so sure about that.  I headed back to Etymonline to investigate:

cavort (v.)
1793, cauvaut, “to prance, bustle nimbly or eagerly,” American English, of uncertain origin, sometimes said to be an alteration of curvet “a leap by a horse,” a word from French that is related to curve (v.). Or perhaps from ca-, ka, colloquial intensive prefix + vault (v.) “to jump, leap.” Modern form attested by 1829. Related: Cavorted; cavorting.
As you can see, there is no evidence that <cavort> is from Latin vortex or its variant spelling vertex.  However, I did find it interesting that <ca-> is a colloquial intensive prefix!  See?  When you go in search of one piece of information, another piece is there sparkling and just waiting for you to notice!  (I’ll have to follow up on that find another time.)Wordsearcher did not help me find morphological relatives, and there were no other morphologically related words at Etymonline.  My next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Here’s where things get interesting.Here is the word used in 1653 with a sense of continual spinning.

1653   H. More Def. Philos. Cabbala (1713) App. i. 113   That there are infinite numbers of Atoms or Particles, different in magnitude and figure;..and that they are moved in the Vniverse after the manner of vortices.

Here is an example of its use from 1704 with a sense of strong swirling.

1704   J. Pitts True Acct. Mohammetans vii. 77   In this place is much Danger without a fresh Gale of Wind, because it is a kind of Vortex, the Water running whirling round, and is apt to swallow down a Ship.

Here is a rather poetic use from 1700 or so.

a1700   T. Ken Edmund in Wks. (1721) II. 24   Now the North Wind the crazy Vessel sweeps, And in its rapid Vortex pris’ner keeps.

So we see this same action of spinning and swirling whether the vortex be involving fire, water, wind, atoms or anything.  That denotation of “to turn, turn around” is present in every use.  Next up some unexpected words that share this base!



This word is a noun that was coined in Modern Latin with a diminutive sense.  The OED defines it as an individual belonging to the genus Vorticellidae and gives this use from 1875.

1875   T. H. Huxley & H. N. Martin Course Elem. Biol. (1877) 90   Sometimes a rounded body, encircled by a ring of cilia but having otherwise the characters of a Vorticella bell, is seen to be attached to the base of the bell of an ordinary Vorticella.

Wikipedia describes the organism this way: “The organism is aptly named “Vorticella” due to the beating cilia creating whirlpools, or vortices.”

Image result for vorticella

The camera catches the vortex of cilia on either side, but if you look closely you can see the blurring action of all the cilia that surround the opening.  The movement stirs the water and promotes the flow of food to the organism.  What I find especially striking about this is that I have seen this organism before!  Yes!  I have!  My husband worked for a neighboring water treatment plant as a research biologist for many years.  At one point, he recorded video of what he could see in his microscope when it was magnified 400 times.  When my students studied the classification system and wondered what protists looked like, I showed them videos of this very organism.  How about that?



The OED defines this as “A British art-movement of the early twentieth century, characterized by abstractionism and machine-like forms.”  How interesting that this base show up in art!  The following use listed at the OED is quite entertaining.

1915   Drawing July 56/1 in reality our old and amusing friend Cubism, but Cubism heavily charged with electricity.

More information from Wikipedia reveals that “it tried to capture movement in an image. In a Vorticist painting modern life is shown as an array of bold lines and harsh colours drawing the viewer’s eye into the centre of the canvas.”
The cover of the 1915 BLAST
Wyndham Lewis
Modern American Poetry: from Blast (19141915)

The cover of the second (and last) edition of BLAST, by Wyndham Lewis and friends. This edition included an article by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska written and submitted from the trenches of WWI.

Image Credit: 

The Poetry Foundation includes in their information that Ezra Pound coined the word “vorticist” and felt that it applied to all of the arts.  Here is a quote from his writing about this, “You may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the TOY of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions.  OR you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting.”

Here is a vorticist poem by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Whirl up sea —
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

According to The Poetry Foundation, the Vorticist Movement ended just three year after it began.  There is thought that the toll of World War I had much to do with that.


This is an adjective describing something as in a swirling motion.

1891   Atlantic Monthly LXVIII. 68/2   They [sc. tornadoes] possess truly vorticular motion.

Image result for vorticular motion of a tornado


This was an invention by A.L. Coburn in 1916.  It was used in photography.  The following sentence is from the OED.

1966   A. L. Coburn Autobiogr. ix. 102   I aspired to make abstract pictures with the camera. For this purpose I devised the Vortoscope late in 1916. This instrument is composed of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle… The mirrors act as a prism splitting the image formed by the lens into segments.

Here is one of vortocist A.L. Coburn’s photographs using his vortoscope.  The finished picture is called a vortograph.

Here are some pretty cool modern examples from dasascukaphotoblog .

DSC_6763 bw


Final Thoughts

It’s makes sense that this word, this family, would be used in so many interesting situations.  The bases <vort>, <vert>, and <verse> are as close as siblings.  They share a denotation that reverberates through the many many words that share those bases.  Today I focused on that shared meaning and the spirit of human nature to see certain characteristics of the world around us and to apply those characteristics to creative expression.  When I was looking in the OED, I also found that there were words in the <vort> family that have become obsolete.  One that struck my fancy was <vorticordious> meaning “turning the heart.”  The only use listed at the OED was from 1669.  I can imagine someone being vorticordious as easily as I can picture someone who, as we now say, turns heads.  Uncovering this cool word is a reinforcement that our language is not static.  It is living and being shaped, as it always has been, by the people who speak it.

And now, I will turn my attention back to the polar vortex at hand with a new appreciation for the lines, the flow, the turning movement that the polar vortex brings to this temperature map.  Stay warm!


“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

I shared this video with my students the other day.  It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world.  The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett.  At the time this video was made he was 11 years old.  At present he is 19.  If you have not seen this, please watch it now.  It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time.  If you have seen it before, watch it again.  Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.

When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?”  One student mentioned how smart Jacob is.  Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals.  Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”.  Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt.  (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that.  So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?”  Now it was completely silent.  And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”

At that point I shared my own thoughts:  When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools.  You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know.  They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.

THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences.  THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague.  And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.

Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think.  Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries.  Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books?  Of course not.  When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read!  In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading.  He was a motivated reader.  The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track.  In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.

So did he in fact  “stop learning”?  I don’t think so.  I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one.  And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking.  Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him.  Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older.  They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find.  They become passive learners.  And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment.  If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”.  Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation.  Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive?  Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?

At this point Ella raised her hand.  “When we study words, we’re not passive.  It’s like how Jacob learns.  We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story.  But WE do it ourselves.”

I answered, “Yes!  You work independently and are actively involved in your learning!  You look at resource books when you need to.  You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing.  And often another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking.  You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time!  The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer.  You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”

Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>.  I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>.  I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then.  That left <vers(e)>.  When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about.  A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track.  I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”

I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did!  The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning.  They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest.  The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that  Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words!  Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random.  She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.

I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words.  We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking.  It got very boring very quickly.  In fifth grade it’s different.  We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like.  We find out its history and how it’s been used.  Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix.  It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”

Did you hear that?  It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun!  We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students.  We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.


Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method

What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair.  The first step is to choose a topic or a word.  Next they do a bit of research.  For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis.  Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate.  Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is.  It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate.  The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis.   The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word.  Which structural pieces are the same?  Which structural pieces are different?  I am speaking of morphemes.  Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases?  A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum.  Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.

The next step in either scenario is to research deeply.  The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy.  The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time.  The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language.  What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element?  In the process, the word’s story is revealed.  It may have meant different things at different times in history.  It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.

Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data.  This will take some time.  The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate.  Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played.  Then heart rates will be taken again.  There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music.  The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research.  Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives.  Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives.  In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.

The data is collected.  What’s next?  The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations.  After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it?  At this point, either outcome is valid.  The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”.  Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed.  It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking.  In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word.  This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums.  As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries.  This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play.  For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>.  If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  The <e> is part of the base element in this word.  If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double.  The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling!  When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created.  (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well.  A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)

Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group.  The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more.  Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board.  The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint).  This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history.  They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation.  For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family.  Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme.  Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment.  The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.

As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration.  They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions.  Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience.  The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.


It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.”  But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can.  My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language.  But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way!  They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning!  As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit.  THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing.  When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we  “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING!



The Intertwining of Etymology and Entomology

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A long time ago and in a land just down the road,  my husband asked me to type up his Master’s Thesis.  I was faster at typing than he was, so I agreed.  What an interesting venture THAT was!  So many words that were unfamiliar to me, but that made perfect sense to him.  You see he was getting his Masters in Aquatic Entomology.  Of course I knew that entomology had to do with insects.  Hadn’t we spent numerous weekends at Otter Creek with a white sheet and a flashlight making observations and noting the adult caddisfly species inhabiting the area?  Hadn’t I also gone with him as he collected caddisfly larva from the same creek that he would later identify to species?  Hadn’t I been to his lab at UW-Madison often enough and checked out the artificial creek in which he was raising caddisflies?  Of course I had.  But when I typed up his thesis, I became fascinated with something other than the caddisflies.  I became fascinated with the scientific names of the insects he was writing about.  Each had a name that was either Latinate or Hellenic.  And because the names were from Latin and Greek, they carried meaning which helped me understand something about the insect named.  At that point, I was years away from understanding that ALL words have a spelling that specifically represents their meaning.  Back then it made scientific terms seem magical.

Today my husband forwarded an article about Carl Linnaeus.  He was a naturalist who lived from 1707-1778.  He created a system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms that is still in use today.  Here is a link to the article.  I enjoyed many interesting things about this article, but one of my favorites was his reason for wanting to describe all living organisms with a two word name (binomial nomenclature).  The example given in the article is that of the European honeybee.  Before 1758, it was known as the Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine ciliatis.  The article roughly translates that Latin to “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, black legs smooth with hair on both sides.”  While quite detailed and helpful in describing one species from another, it was very cumbersome to remember or write down.  Thanks to Carl Linnaeus, the European honeybee is now known as Apis mellifera  “honey-bearing bee.”

I encourage you to watch this  short video about him and his scientific contributions.

Long before my husband’s thesis was ready to be typed, I was hearing the scientific names of many insects.  As part of his Masters coursework he prepared a prodigious insect collection.  I remember that we carried collection jars wherever we went!  In this post I will focus on the some of the Order names I became familiar with during that time period.  The levels of classification are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.  What caught my attention with the Order names was the consistent use of the element <ptera>.

I was fascinated that caddisflies were part of the larger Order known as Trichoptera.  At the time I was told it  meant “hairy winged.”  Now I know that <trich>  had a Hellenic ancestor, τριχίνος (transcribed as trichinos) meaning “of hair” and <pter> is from Greek pteron and means “winged.”  The Caddisflies in this Order are often confused with moths in the Lepidoptera Order.  They are confused because they are similar in size and color to many moths, but upon a closer look (and because of what is revealed in the name Lepidoptera), one can see a major difference.  You see, Lepidoptera is also a compound word with one element deriving from Hellenic λεπιδος (transcribed as lepidos) “a scale” and the other from Hellenic πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

This is an adult caddisfly, Order Trichoptera “hairy winged.”

Image result for trichoptera free clipart

This is a Brown House-moth, Order Lepidoptera “scaley winged.”


Some of the other Orders of insects I learned about while typing my husband’s thesis were Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Siphonaptera, and Megaloptera.  There were others, of course, but looking at even these few will unlock your understanding of scientific names used in classification.

As I was looking up more information about the Order Hemiptera, which is from ἠμί (transcribed as hemi) “half” and πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged,” I found out that historically, the Order Hemiptera was split into two suborders.    The first was Heteroptera.  Its first element is from ἑτεροειδής (transcribed as heteroeidēs) “of another kind” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”  The second Suborder was Homoptera, whose first element is from ὁμοείδεια (transcribed as homoeideia) “sameness of nature or form” and its second element is πτερόν (transcribed as pteron) “winged.”

From that we can note that insects in the Order Hemiptera are half winged.  That doesn’t mean that their wings are halved in some way.  It means instead that if they are in the Suborder Heteroptera, one pair of their wings has a tough and leathery upper half with a membranous tip and the other pair of their wings is strictly membranous.  You might say that of their two sets of wings, one set is “of another kind.”  If they are in the Suborder Homoptera, both of their wing pairs share a “sameness of form.”  Their forewings can either be toughened or membranous, but not both.

This is one of the insects classified as a Heteroptera.  You can see both the membranous wing and the leathery wing.

Image result for hemiptera

This is an aphid, one of the insects classified as a Homoptera.  You can see that both pair of wings are the same.  They are membranous.

Euceraphis species Birch Aphid Bugs Homoptera Images

Now let’s find out about the name for the Order of insects known as Hymenoptera.  Are you making guesses as to this word’s meaning at this point?  In looking at the Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, I actually found the full word ὑμενόπτερος (transcribed as hymenopteros) “membrane winged.”  This group includes wasps, bees, and ants.  One thing to note about their wings is that the front set is bigger than the back set.

Here is a picture of a Tawny Mining Bee.  I chose this picture so you can see the smaller second set of wings.

Andrena fulva Tawny Mining Bee Hymenoptera Images

Let’s move on to the order known as Diptera.  Think about what the word sum will be.  We now know the second element in this word.  What’s left?  It would have to be <di + pter + a –> diptera>.  So far all of the elements in all of the words we have looked at have been Hellenic (Greek in origin).  The English base <di> is derived from the Greek word δοιοί (transcribed as doioi) “two.”  This group of insects includes flies, mosquitoes, gnats and more.  These insects belong in this Order because of the characteristic stated in the denotation of their name.  They have just two wings.

Here is a picture of a Green Bottle Fly.  You can see the two wings.

Lucilia species a Green Bottle Calliphoridae

Next let’s look at the Order Megaloptera.  Do you have any guesses about this word?  The second element is the same in all of the words we’ve looked at, so the first element will no doubt be describing the wings on the insects in this order.  Searching in Liddell and Scott, the first element is derived from μεγάλον (transcribed as megalon) “big, great.”  If you guessed that this order of insects includes those with big or great wings, you can pat yourself on the back!  Some of the insects we find in the Order Megaloptera are alderflies, dobsonflies, and fishflies.

Here is a picture of a dobsonfly.  Its wings are obviously larger than any others we have looked at today.

Image result for megaloptera

The last Order we’ll look at here is Siphonaptera.  There are things about this word that are similar to the ones we’ve already looked at, and yet there’s something new to notice.  First off, we see the now familiar element <pter> “winged.”  What will the rest of this word reveal?  Well, I found σίφων (transcribed as siphon) “tube, pipe.”  That leaves us with that curious letter <a> between the first element and the second.  That is a negativizing <a> that is a modern prefix to <pter>.  In this case, insects in the Order Siphonaptera are without wings!  They have no wings!  But what their name reveals to us is that they have mouthparts that are tube-like for sucking.  You guessed it.  The insects we find in this Order are fleas!  They stay alive by feeding on the blood of their host.

In this picture of a flea, you will notice there are no wings.  The tubes for sucking are hanging down near the mouth on the far left.

File:Ctenocephalides felis ZSM.jpg


There are, of course, many other Orders of insects.  We could keep making sense of their names for quite a long time!  What is an especially interesting find in the few we HAVE looked at is that Hellenic element <pter>. I wonder if you recognize it from words outside of this particular context.  The most common word I can think of is helicopter.  The word sum is <helic  + o + pter  –> helicopter>.  The Hellenic base <helic> “spiral” and the Hellenic base <pter> “winged” are joined with the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>.  Can you picture the blades of a helicopter and the way they move?

Another familiar word you may recognize is pterodactyl.  You will notice that when this element is initial in a word, the <p> is unpronounced.  The word sum is <pter + o + dactyl –> pterodactyl>.  The Helenic base <pter> “winged” and the Hellenic base <dactyl> “finger” are joined with the connecting vowl <o>.  Here is a picture of the pterodactyl.  You can see the fingers.

Pterodactyl (Dimorphodon macronyx) skeleton from Geological magazine (1864)

Entomology.  The word itself has an interesting story.  Using Etymonline, I found out it is from French entomologie, which was coined in 1764 from -logie “study of” and Greek entonom “insects.”  Entonom is the neuter of entonomos “cut in pieces, cut up.”  In this case, “cut” refers to the way an insect’s body is in segments and each segment is cut in or notched between the segments.  The word sum is <en + tom + o + loge/ + y –> entomology>.  The <en> prefix “in” is joined to the first base <tome/> “cut” which is joined to the second base <loge> “study, discourse” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o> (which replaces the final non-syllabic <e>on the base).  Finally the suffix <y> replaces the final non-syllabic <e> on the base <loge>.

Here is a drawing that clearly shows the segmenting of an insect’s body.

File:ABDOMEN (PSF).png

People who study science expect the words they use to represent meaning.  It is one of the things I love about teaching science.  The words we use in class as we are learning any science topic are ripe with meaning.  They seem so unpronounceable and weird to the students because they have not been taught to look to parts of a word (morphemes) as parts of a meaningful structure.  Syllable division steers students away from believing that spelling makes any sense at all.  It misguides and makes them think a word’s spelling is not understandable, but it IS pronounceable.  But that is the opposite of what is true.  As you have seen with these seemingly difficult and nonsensical insect Order names,  the spelling of a word – EVERY WORD – reveals to us a structure.  Looking to understand the structure, we find the word’s story and begin to understand how and why the spelling of that word makes perfect sense.  Once we understand the structure and the word’s etymology, we can understand the possibilities for pronunciation.  As we noticed with the base <pter>, the pronunciation of this base is dependent on its placement in the word.  That is just one example of what I meant when I said “possibilities for pronunciation.”

The amazing thing is that it isn’t just science words that are spelled to represent meaning.  It is so hard for many to let go of the idea that spelling represents pronunciation.  When thinking about how to spell a word, the strategy to “Sound it out” is so deeply ingrained.  It is the only strategy many adults and children have been taught.  That makes it feel right.  But it is not.  Your logical and reasoning brain will tell you that.  So will all of these fascinating scientific names.  If it is now obvious to you that the name for the insect Order Megaloptera makes sense, it’s time to look at other words that catch your eye.  Look at math words and history words and guidance words and, well, all words.  There are revelations waiting for you in every word you read!

Review, revisit; every time seeing something you didn’t see before

When thinking of a timeline between the introduction of words and their structure, and the final assessment of them, I’m in no hurry.  Here’s how a recent review of a list of science words we have been talking about for a while went.  A few months ago students were sent off in pairs to investigate ten words.  After hypothesizing the structure of the word, their task was to figure out what the base was.  As the groups began to dig in at Etymonline, I circulated to help them understand what to look for, and how to know if they found its earliest ancestor from which our modern day base is derived.

Each group of two made a large poster which was shared with the whole class before being posted in the hallway.  We took our time in sharing those posters.  We never presented more than two in one day.  The students would hang their poster on the white board at the front of the room.  All other students were asked to bring their chairs up front.  I wanted them close, and I wanted them to participate in the sharing of each poster.  I tell the “audience” that if we are to have learning that is worth anything, they need to participate.  They need to listen carefully and to ask questions when something doesn’t make sense.  They need to be thinking about other words that are not listed on the poster but just might be related.

In my experience, the research each student does and the information collected does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  The presenting of the information also does not necessarily lead to long term understanding.  Instead it is the interaction with the rest of the class.  It is the off the cuff discussions.  It is the unplanned questioning.  It is the words suggested as belonging to the base’s family and the reasons given.  This kind of participation happening over and over leads to students who make contributions to the class that really do help all of us understand in a wider way.  It doesn’t take long before the students realize that comments like, “I like how neatly you wrote on your poster” pale in comparison to “How did you know that the <o> was a connecting vowel in the word biosphere?”  Yes.  Their beginning of the year observations and comments are really that shallow and surfacey.   It is quite different by the end of the year.   Something is happening.  They are noticing things that matter, and they are not remaining quiet about it.

Here are a few of the posters I am speaking about.

It has been two months since we last shared a poster.  But we have continued to point out some of these bases to one another as they have popped up in familiar and unfamiliar words.

Last week I decided it was time to assess how well these bases have taken root in their minds.  I had the students take a plain sheet of paper and divide it into ten areas.  I read aloud each word.  I told them that if they wanted to consistently spell sphere correctly  (if they sometimes forgot the ‘p’ or ‘h’ or put them in the wrong order) I had a tip.  I told them to think of the first phoneme of the word, /s/.  They all knew it would be represented by the grapheme <s> and should write it down.  Then I told them to think of the second phoneme of the word, /f/.  They all knew that in this word (Hellenic) the grapheme that represented the /f/ was a <ph>.  That’s as far as we had to go.  They knew the rest.  It is much more reliable to think of the phoneme / graphemes in this word than to try to remember a string of letters without being taught a reason for them to be in any particular order.

The students chose a square on their paper to write the synthetic word sum for the announced word, the denotation of the base, and then to make a quick drawing of something that they thought of when they thought of the first base.  These are called “Quick Draws”.  Here are a few of the sheets:

We stopped once we were half way done and took a moment to brainstorm other words that shared each base.  With each suggested word, we talked about how that word’s meaning related back to the denotation of the base.  So, for example, when speaking of the base <hydr>, students suggested hydrant, as in fire hydrant and explained that water is accessible for firemen at fire hydrants.  Students suggested hydrate and dehydrated and explained that the first was taking in water while the second is describing when someone’s body is low on water and needs more.  You get the idea.

I told the students to be reviewing these bases and that there would be an assessment in 1 1/2 weeks time.

The next day, when they came in, I asked them to get out a piece of lined paper.  I told them to write <therm> on the top line with its denotation of “heat” beneath it.  This is an activity they have come to be comfortable with.  They know that when I read a word, they will write a synthetic word sum.  I read aloud seven words that share the base <therm>.  Before I began, I reminded them that <therm> is the base.  It is not further analyzable, so that means it will show up in a word sum as it is.  Affixes may be added to it, other bases may be joined to it, but this base will always be listed as <therm>.

I did not collect the student papers that day, so I cannot show you their work.  I did, however, take pictures of the board after the students had volunteered to write the word sums there and read aloud the word sums.

Notice in the picture above that I had both thermograph and thermography on my list.  I read thermograph first.  Several words later I read thermography.  I was curious to see whether or not the students would recognize the base <graph> and its spelling in both, even though that base is pronounced differently in each of the words because of the stress shift.  That did not appear to be a problem!  After checking out the word sums, we reviewed what a thermograph is.  In case you aren’t familiar with one, it is a self recording thermometer.  It keeps a continuous recording of what might be a fluctuating temperature.  Now if you know that the second base in the compound word thermograph has a denotation of “write”, then thinking about a thermograph as a machine that writes down (or records) the amount of heat (or temperature) makes perfect sense!

As you can see, the students are starting to rely on meaning to help them with their spelling and less on pronunciation.  This doesn’t meant they aren’t pronouncing the word as they spell.  It means that as they are pronouncing the word to themselves, they are focusing on the morphemes that make up each word rather than on the letter-letter-letter sequence.  When I say thermometer, my hope is that they recognize the first base is <therm> and the second base is <meter> and they are connected with the Greek connecting vowel <o>.

In the above picture, you see the words thermal and geothermal.  Believe it or not, the students smiled when I said geothermal!  They knew both bases from our list and knew how to represent this word in spelling!  Then, of course we talked about thermal underwear (after all, what fifth grader doesn’t love it when someone in the room mentions underwear?) and thermal pane windows.   Geothermal energy is an interesting thing, so we talked about that as well.  Since we’ve just finished our study of the geosphere, we’ve recently been talking about the tectonic plates.  It was interesting to note that many of the geothermal energy plants are found along the tectonic plate boundaries!

First day back from the weekend!  When they walked in, I asked them to get a sheet of paper.  Different base, new list of words, new observations.  Today’s base was <ge> “the earth, the land”.  Today I read the words and the students wrote synthetic word sums like they did the other day.  But today I collected the papers before they wrote those word sums on the board.  I wanted to see how the individual understanding was growing.  I wanted to see which bases /suffixes needed more exposure so they would become recognizable to my students.  I wanted to see how many are starting to make the switch from spelling phonetically to spelling morphemically.  Here’s an example of what I mean by that:

This student is straddling two worlds.  He understands that words have structure, but because he also relies on “sounding out words” in order to spell, this student does not recognize that three of the words have the base <loge>.   In the first word, he spells the <loge> base as *<leg>.  The good news is that he recognized the <ist> suffix!  In the fourth word, he correctly spelled the base <loge>.  In the fifth word, he did not recognize <loge> as a base at all.  The fact that the <loge> base in all three words has a slightly different pronunciation probably accounts for the difference in spelling here.  I think what he did was to guess that there was an <al> suffix and an <*igy> suffix.  We have been talking about the <al> suffix recently and how common it is. With more exercises like these, he will rely more on recognizing consistently spelled bases and affixes!

The rest of this list is pretty great!  Very few knew that the <o> in geode was not a connecting vowel.  I chose that word on purpose.  I don’t want to create a false sense of <ge> always being followed by a connecting vowel.  If you think about it, this student is busy trying to make sense of the orthography we are studying.  He knows that a connecting vowel can connect a base to a suffix.  Even though he incorrectly guessed that the <o> was a connecting vowel, he did write that the final /d/ as <ed>.

Here’s another I’d like to share:

Look at what is understood and what is iffy.  In the first word, this student went back to a deeply embedded strategy – that of breaking a word into syllables to aide in spelling.  Except that it didn’t aide him here (and I suspect doesn’t usually).  What is interesting about word two and four is  that the student knows that when /k/ is final and there is an /ɪ/ preceding the /k/, as in stick, the grapheme representing the phoneme /k/ is <ck>.   What he doesn’t realize, is that it is true for a base but not a suffix.  So now I know I want to weave in words with the <loge> base as well as words with the <ic> suffix on my next few lists.

Many other students are feeling confident about recognizing bases and affixes:

The next step was to ask volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  Somebody writes it on the board, we talk about it and notice things in common between words on the list.  We talk about what each word means, and then another volunteer comes up to read the word sum aloud.  As we were discussing the inital large posters that had these bases, we had also discussed the meanings of these words.  But I always like to find a word we haven’t talked about yet to see if the students can use what they know about the bases, to give clues about the word’s meaning.  The word on this list was hydrogeology.  The base <hydr> was one of the bases on the large posters, so I thought this word might feel easy to spell (if they spelled it morpheme by morpheme).  They did!  And much to my delight, several wondered what it would mean.  It was obvious that it had something to do with both water and the earth, but they weren’t sure what.  When we searched, we found out that it refers to the branch of geology involving groundwater!  Makes so much sense!

Looking at the above picture, do you see what I see?  Just a few days ago, the students were writing the words thermograph and thermography.  Today I asked them to write geographic.  I’m trying to reinforce what is fresh in their minds.

Isn’t it great that a few of the students are starting to incorporate the Script we are practicing?  I love it!  Anyway, I paused with this word geographic and asked if anyone had an idea of what would be needed in order to make geographic become geographically.  I wasn’t sure if anyone would recognize that we would be adding two suffixes: <al> and <ly>.  As it turned out, no one did.  The suggestions were for an <ly> suffix only.  What a great opportunity to talk about how common it is to add the two suffixes to an <ic> suffix.  Offhand I could think of basically, logically, musically, typically, magically, historically, and tragically.  Then when we went to Word Searcher and put ‘ically’ into the search bar, there were 240 more!  I then wrote the only word I knew of that had only an <ly> suffix added to an <ic> suffix.  That word was publicly.  We went back to Word searcher and typed in ‘icly’.  Publicly was the only word that came up!  From Word Searcher, I went to Etymonline.  I found out the same thing:  publicly is the only example of a word having <ic> and <ly>, but not <al> between them.  How interesting!

Geotropism is a word we have talked about before.  The base <trope> “turning” is another one of the bases that was the focus of a big poster.  Geotropism happens with roots.  They always grow downward toward the earth.  If the plant or stem gets turned for some reason, the roots turn to continue growing towards the earth.

So here’s the assessment.  I read each of the ten words.  The students wrote the word sum on their paper.  Beneath each base they wrote the denotation for that base.  If they could think of one or two words that also share the first base, they were to list them.  That’s it.


So my classes did very well!  They can spell these ten science words! But really?  That was only part of what I was hoping to see on these papers.  I wanted to see coherent word sums.  I wanted to see denotations in quotation marks to signal to all that they are just that – denotations.  I wanted to see which of my students have been making connections between these bases and other words we’ve looked at.  Are they “getting” that a base with its denotation can be part of a large family of words?  After having seen how these eleven base elements can be found in so many other words, are they beginning to expect that of other bases we encounter as well?   Are they realizing that seemingly big words are made understandable by first understanding their structure?


Making Sure Our Misspellings Are Not Missed Opportunities!

Following our recent performances of The Photosynthesis Follies, I gave a test.  After all, the students had been living and breathing their photosynthesis script for two and a half weeks.  I was confident that if they participated and thought about what was happening in our play, they would understand this incredibly important process.  They did remarkably well!  But that is not the point of this post.

As I always do, while I was correcting the tests,  I was taking notes about sentence structures that needed attention and common spelling errors that needed to be addressed.  I began to notice how many different spellings were used for the word <xylem>.  But within a short amount of time, the number of different spellings for <xylem> was surpassed by the number of different spellings for <oxygen>.  As I looked over the spellings, it struck me that my students actually know quite a bit about graphemes and the phonemes they can represent.  I thought it might be interesting to specifically look at these two lists.

At the top of each list the word is represented by IPA and the symbols are surrounded by slash marks.  The slash marks indicate that this is a pronunciation and NOT a spelling.  I wanted the students to think about each word’s pronunciation and how each phoneme in the pronunciation is represented by a grapheme in the word’s spelling.  To that end, I underlined each phoneme in the IPA representation of the word <xylem>.

Right away someone asked about the spelling in which there was an <e> in front of the <x>.  I put that question out to the students.  “Can anyone think of why someone might have put that <e> there?”

“Perhaps it’s because of the way we pronounce the letter <x> when it’s by itself.”  That made a lot of sense to me.  After all, during play rehearsals, we had a few students that kept  pronouncing xylem as /ɛgzˈɑɪləm/.  Since the word began with <x>, those students wanted to pronounce it like we do in /ˈɛksɹeɪ/  (x ray).

At this point I pointed to what I had written on the board as pertains to the grapheme <x>:

We looked at the various pronunciations that are represented by the letter <x>.  We pronounced them aloud and felt the difference between the /ks/ of box, the /gz/ of exact, and the /kʃ/ of anxious.  Taking the time to pronounce and feel these pronunciations in our mouths was an eye opener for my students.  When all you remember being told is that “x is for x ray”, you’re at a disadvantage when trying to read and spell words with an <x>!

When we looked at the fourth phoneme that could be represented by the grapheme <x>, /z/, we recognized that not only was that the way we pronounced <x> in xylophone, but also in xylem!  We turned our attention back to the list.

We looked specifically at the unstressed vowel known as the schwa in IPA.  I reminded the students that some of them had this schwa as part of the pronunciation of their name.  They offered that the schwa, /ə/, is sometimes represented by the grapheme <i> as in Jaydin, by the grapheme <a> as in Amelia, by the grapheme <e> as in Kayden, and the <o> as in Jackson.

So with that in mind, we looked at the choices students had made in choosing a vowel to precede the final <m>.  Students chose either an <a>, an <e>, or a <u>.  This was in keeping with what we understand about the schwa.  I also reminded everyone that the schwa represents an unstressed vowel.  That meant that the other vowel in this word, represented by /ɑɪ/, would be carrying the stress.  And sure enough,  when we announced the word over and over, the stress was on the /ɑɪ/.

Looking back at the list, there were only two graphemes chosen to represent the /ɑɪ/.  It was either an <i> or a <y>.  I wondered aloud if it was possible for a <y> to represent /ɑɪ/.  Students named words like sky, xylophone, and cry to provide the evidence that it could.

So when we now looked at our list, we realized that only three of the spellings made sense and were possible — the first (*xilam), the second (*xilem), and the last (xylem).  The third, fourth, and sixth were missing the grapheme that paired up with the phoneme /ɑɪ/.

So now what?  Now it was time to check into this word’s etymology.  Looking at Etymonline, we see that it was first attested in 1875, meaning “woody tissue in higher plants”.  It was from German xylem, coined from Greek ξύλον, transcribed as xylon “wood”.  This was particularly interesting to us because we were focusing on the water that is transported in the xylem.  Now we knew that the xylem itself was made of woody tissue and helped physically support the plant or tree!  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only the outer xylem (sapwood) is active in transporting water from the roots to the leaves.  The inner part of the tree (heartwood) is made up of dead xylem that no longer carries water, yet is strong and gives the tree that physical support.  The next time you count the rings on a cross cut piece of a tree, know that you are counting rings of xylem!

Image result for xylem

Here’s an easy way to see the xylem tubes in a piece of celery.

Image result for xylem

And just in case you are interested, the word xylophone was also coined from xylon “wood”.  The xylophone consists of wooden bars struck by mallets.



Related image


Getting back to the spelling of xylem, we also noticed that the vowel following the <x> has been a <y> all the way back to Greek!  As a matter of fact, seeing a <y> medially in a word is an indicator that the word is from Greek!

The only grapheme yet to check was whether the unstressed vowel preceding the final <m> was an <e> or an <a>.  At  I found out that xylem was from <xyl> “wood” + <ēma >. The entry also said to “see phloem”.  Interesting!  So the second part of this word is the same as the second part of the word phloem.  Still at, I found out that the second part of the word phloem is <-ēma >, a deverbal noun ending.  A deverbal noun is a noun that was derived from a verb.  Etymonline also listed <-ema> as the suffix in the word phloem.

So we now have evidence to support that <xylem> is the way to spell this word.  We also have an understanding of so much more!

It was time to look at the IPA for <oxygen> and see what we could learn.

I again underlined the phonemes in the IPA that would represent a grapheme in the spelling of the word.  We noticed that everyone chose <o> to represent /ɑ/.  The next phoneme was /ks/.  There were only two spellings that had something other than an <x> to represent this.  I asked if choosing a <c> or a <cs> made sense.  The students recognized that a <c> can sometimes be pronounced /k/, so we could understand someone choosing <cs>.  The <c> by itself, however, could not represent the phoneme /ks/.  We could rule that spelling (*ocegeon) out.  We also noticed that two of the spellings had <xs> as representing /ks/.  This brought us back to our discussion of expire from the other day.  We knew the <ex-> was a prefix with a sense of “out” and the base is from <spire> meaning “breathe”, but that when joined together, the <s> on the base was omitted or elided to make the word easier to pronounce.  Now we could also rule out the spellings *oxsigen and *oxsigin.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  A friend emailed me regarding this post and in particular, the above paragraph.  We are now both curious about instances in which the prefix <ex->is followed by <s>.  There are a few older words (very few) like exsanguine (bloodless) and exscind (cut off or out) where we see this letter combination.  Perhaps it was more common a while back and moving forward in time, the <s> in many of the words was elided.  I’m not sure.  My take away is that I don’t have to have the precise answer right now.  It is something I will keep in mind as I encounter other words.  In the meantime, I am also contemplating words in which the <ex-> prefix is followed by a base with an initial <c> as in <exciting>.  We know that the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/.  So why is it that very few words follow the prefix <ex-> with an element that has an initial <s> for pronunciation’s sake, yet many words follow an <ex-> prefix with an element that has an initial <c> that is pronounced as /s/?  Interesting questions, right?  Well, as a very good friend says quite often, “There are no coincidences!”  That very question was asked in a scholarly group I was part of today!  Just because the <c> (when followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>) is pronounced /s/ in Modern English spellings, doesn’t mean it follows that convention in other languages, or that it did in Latin.  So the <ex-> prefix followed by an element with an initial <c> didn’t (and in many languages still doesn’t) present the same pronunciation situation that <ex-> followed by an element with an initial <s>. What an elegant explanation!

Back to the post:

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was a schwa – an unstressed vowel.  We knew from our look at xylem that several letters could represent /ə/.  There was one spelling that was missing the representation of this vowel.  We could take that spelling off the list of possibilities (*oxgen).  The rest of the letters used to represent /ə/ could be used, so we kept going.

The next phoneme in the pronunciation was /dʒ/.  The students pronounced it and noticed that every spelling left represented /dʒ/ with the grapheme <g>, even though it could also be represented with <j>.

It was time to look at the second /ə/ and again recognize that this pronunciation can be represented with many vowel letters.  It was interesting to note that almost all of the spellings used an <e>.  Only two spellings used an <o>.  I asked if anyone could think of words with a <gon> at the end.  Students thought of polygon, dragon, and wagon.  We wondered if following a <g> with an <o> and a <n> would always result in the <g> being pronounced as /g/ instead of /dʒ/.  If that was the case, the grapheme <o> wouldn’t work in this position in this word.

When looking at the final phoneme /n/, we noticed everyone chose the grapheme <n>to represent it.  That is, all except for the spelling with the final <t>.  Students offered theories about why someone might think there was a /t/ pronounced finally, but in the end we decided that was not the spelling we were after, and we could eliminate it as a reasonable choice.

It all boiled down to the first /ə/.  If we could find out which grapheme represents it and why, we will have found the logical spelling choice for this word.  Here were our final choices:


It was time to search our etymology resources!  There must be information in this word’s history that will lead us to the current spelling.

At Etymonline we found out that this word was attested in 1790, referring to “a gaseous chemical element”.  It was from French oxygène, coined in 1777 by the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.  It was from Greek oxys “sharp, acid” and French <-gène> “something that produces”.  The French <-gène> was from Greek <-genes> “formation, creation”.  The denotation of the <oxy> part of this word doesn’t seem to make sense until you know this word’s story.  At the time this word was coined, it was thought that oxygen was essential in the formation of acid (hence it’s name meaning something that produces acid).  We now know that isn’t the case.  Isn’t that interesting?  

Antoine-Laurent deLavoisier

As usual, the etymology added a lot as far as understanding the spelling of this word.  We found out that the <x> is the letter to represent /ks/ and the <y> will represent the /ə/.  That eliminates all spellings except <oxygen>.  Pretty cool, huh?

When all was said and done, we noticed one more thing.  In the word <xylem>, the <y> was stressed and pronounced /ɑɪ/.  In the word <oxygen>, the <y> was unstressed and pronounced /ə/.

There are many reasons I chose to take a closer look at these misspellings.  One of the biggest was that of letting my students know that they know a lot about graphemes and the phonemes that they represent.  So often a student will feel bad when they misspell a word.  Well, today I wanted to celebrate the logical thinking they do when they are thinking of how to spell a word.  But I also wanted to point out that without etymology, we can only go so far.  After that it becomes a guessing game.

I filmed this lesson with my first class.  It is similar to what I have described here, although what I have written here is an overall impression from my experiences talking about this with three classes.

Orthography Builds Understanding … Say Good Bye to Memorizing Definitions!

Oftentimes people ask me how I choose words to investigate with the class.  The answer to that is that sometimes the words choose us.  You see, I am constantly watching to see who is understanding our discussions (no matter the topic) and who seems confused.  If the furrowed-brow look seems attached to any particular word, that’s the word we need to attend to.  In the last two weeks we looked at collaborating and transpiration.

First there’s collaborating…

As part of our science standards, I am incorporating engineering practice.  One of my favorite activities is to have the students work with a partner and build shelving for their lockers.  The challenge is to build the shelving out of recycled materials.  As we started the project, I told the students that collaborating with their partner would be very important.  By the end of the day, several students had asked what the word collaborating meant.

On Thursday I wrote the word ‘collaborating” on the board and asked students to give me a hypothesis of what the word sum might be. I got a variety of hypotheses such as:

collab + orat + ing
collabor + ating
coll + abor + at + ing
co + lab + orat + ing

I pointed out that three of the hypotheses had <ing> as a suffix.  “Can <ing> be a suffix”, I asked?  They named  words like jumping, walking, and talking.

Next I asked how we would spell the word if we removed the <ing> suffix. Many knew it would be ‘collaborate’. Realizing that collaborate is spelled with a final non-syllabic <e>, we knew we had evidence that there would be an <e> in our word sum after the <at>. I confirmed that the <ate> and the <ing> were suffixes. We thought of celebrate /celebrating, educate / educating, elevate / elevating.

Since no one recognized a prefix, I told them that there was one in this word. It is an assimilated form of the <com> prefix having a sense of “with, together”. They spotted <col>. We talked about the assimilation of the <m> to an <l> in this word and how much easier the word was to pronounce this way. (We had previously talked about the <suf> in suffix being an assimilated prefix from <sub>. When you say ‘subfix’ five times, you automatically smooth it out and say ‘suffix’. The <b> assimilates to an <f>. The same is happening with <com> to <col>.)

Then we thought of words with a <col> prefix like collect, collide, and collision. We noticed that the element following the <col> prefix began with an <l> in each word.

Finally, looking at the word sum we now had, <col + labor + ate/ + ing>, the students recognized that the base element of this word is <labor>. They knew that meant work. Now they knew this word meant ‘working together or with someone’. We consulted an etymological dictionary to see whether we could find evidence to further analyze <labor>, but we could not.  This free base was first attested in the 13th century as a noun meaning “a task, a project”.  It is from Latin labor “toil, exertion; hardship, pain, fatigue; a work, a product of labor”.  That is indeed our base element. We marked the points of primary and secondary stress in the word, and pronounced it as /kəˈlæbəˌɹeɪtɪŋ/.

Related words we spotted while reading through the etymological entry of labor are:

labor, laboring, labored, laboratory, laborious, laboriously, laborer, belabor, elaborate, elaboration, elaborately, collaborate, collaborative, collaboratively, collaborator, collaboration

We found out something quite interesting about the related word collaborate.  It was first attested in 1871 and is a back-formation from collaborator.  Calling it a back-formation just means that the word collaborator was around first (1802).  When the agent suffix <-or> was removed, the word collaborate was formed. At Etymonline, it states that the words collaborator and collaboration were given a bad sense in World War II (1940) when they were used to mean “traitorious cooperation with an occupying enemy”.  People who sympathized with the Nazis were considered collaborators.

We also talked about elaborate.  The <e> is a clip of the prifix <ex> and has a sense of “out”.  So if something is elaborate, it has been worked out in great detail.  Cool, huh?

Here are a few pictures of the students collaborating on a design and the construction of their shelves.


And now this…

Last week, as we were rehearsing our Photosynthesis Follies (performed this week for the students in our school), I noticed that the students were saying the word transportation instead of transpiration.  It was at that point in the play in which the chloroplast was explaining to the sunlight how it is that water travels up in a plant.  Sunlight questioned the very idea that water could travel upward.  After all, gravity doesn’t work that way!  The chloroplast explained that in a plant or even in a tree, the water is kind of sucked up, the way soda is sucked up through a straw.  The movement of the water from the roots up through the xylem to the cells and then out through the stomata (openings on the underside of the leaf) is known as transpiration.

So I wrote the word transpiration on the board, and asked for some hypotheses about its word sum.

transpir + ation
trans + pirat + ion
tran + spi +rat + ion

Again, we started with the <ion> because two people pointed out it was a suffix.  In the case of collaboration, we knew that if we removed the <ion> suffix, we would have collaborate.  But here we were not so sure that transpirate was a word.  Someone offered to look in a dictionary.  They reported back that transpirate and transpirated were there, listed with transpire.  They all had a sense of giving off water vapor through the stomata.

Next we looked at the beginning of the word.  Could <tran> or <trans> be a prefix?  Can we think of other words that begin that way?  The students thought of transportation (the word that was getting confused with transpiration), transformer, and transition ( I use this word throughout the day when we switch from one subject to another).  We looked at Etymonline for more information about whether or not the <s> was part of this, and also to determine whether this was a prefix or a base.

We found out that <trans> is the full form of the prefix.  It was once a Latin preposition with a sense of “across, beyond, over”.  Many Latin prepositions became Modern English prefixes.  When looking up the word transpire, we saw that its Modern English base comes from the Latin infinitive spirare meaning “breathe”.  So our word sum started to look like this:

<trans + spire/ + ate + ion –>  transpiration

The next question that arose was about the final <s> of our prefix joining with the initial <s> of our base.  We KNOW there aren’t two <s>’s in this word.  What’s up with that?  We went back to find other words with the <trans> prefix that had a base element with an initial <s>.

We found transcribe (<tran(s) + scribe –> transcribe>) and transect (<tran(s) + sect –> transect>).  We noticed that the final <s> in <trans> didn’t seem to be needed  when the base element began with an <s>.  We also noticed that it was needed in words like transportation (<trans + port + ate/ + ion –> transportation>) and transfer (<trans + fer –> transfer>).

Now that we were feeling good about our word sum for transpiration, we thought of other words with the Latinate base <spire> “breathe”.

I wrote respiration on the board and asked for a word sum.  Someone easily announced it.  We spent the final few moments of class talking about how these words related to each other in meaning.  We already had talked about transpiration and how it was the movement of water through a plant.  I compared it to perspiration.  My students did not know the word, but they knew its synonym, sweat!

Image result          Image result for perspiration


Then we compared respiration in a human or animal to a spiracle in a caterpillar or in some sharks (breathing hole).

Image result for spiracle  Image result for spiracle

Next we talked about the structure of <expire> and its prefix <ex>, which has a sense of “out”.  So when something expires, it breathes out its last breathe.  That led to a discussion of the expiration dates we see on foods.  The foods aren’t breathing the way living things are, but they are definitely done as far as being safely eaten is concerned!  The next question that needed to be asked about this word was, “What happened to the <s> in the base element <spire>?

Right away someone said that when we pronounce the <x>, it kind of ends with a /s/!  Brilliant noticing!  Then we tried to pronounce this word with both an <x> and an <s> side by side.  Because we pronounce the <x> as /ks/, the <s> in <spire>has been deleted to make the word easier to pronounce.  This is called elision.  We pronounce this word as /ɛkˈspaɪɹ/.

We didn’t have much time to talk about inspiration and spirit.  I put them on our Wonder Wall so we wouldn’t forget about them.  I don’t want to rush through that discussion!

Here are a few pictures of the students in The Photosynthesis Follies!  A total of 66 students divided into 9 different casts, each performing twice over the course of two days.  We KNOW Photosynthesis now!

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