“If we knew what it is we were doing, it would not be called research.  Would it?”  -Albert Einstein

The above quote by Albert Einstein is one of my favorite.  I have hung it in the hallway in anticipation of our Science Fair every year.  But after a few years of replacing spelling instruction with Structured Word Inquiry, I began to realize how well it applied to what we were doing with words.  I love that scientists aren’t expected to have answers ready at every turn.  Science is methodical and takes the time it takes.  Even when research is finished and conclusions are drawn, it is understood that those findings are temporary.  They are the current understanding and are open to further questioning and research at any time.  And when someone takes the time to research, test, and publish new findings, those findings are thoughtfully considered by fellow scientists who either accept or challenge them.  In that respect, science is not static.  It is always moving towards a deeper understanding.  If you are using Structured Word Inquiry, you will recognize the parallels here.

When I think about the first part of the quote, “If we knew what we were doing,”  I recognize that SWI can feel like that sometimes, especially at first.  You want to just jump in and use it with students, but so many things nag at you.  “What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?  What should I do first?  What needs to be taught before I begin with SWI?”  Personally, I ignored those kinds of questions when I started and asked instead, “How long before my students are asking the kinds of questions that Dan Allen’s students ask?”

(It was on the weekend before we returned from winter break in 2012 that I happened upon Dan Allen’s blog and found out about Structured Word Inquiry. What drew my attention were the questions the students were asking about words and spelling, AND the fascinating discussions that followed.  I couldn’t wait to bring it to my students and see what we could learn!  How could SWI deepen our understanding of words and help with the spelling struggles that are typically seen in a classroom? It was two days after reading and talking with Dan and Real Spelling that I began talking about words with my 5th graders.  Our human resources were Dan Allen, Real Spelling, and Pete Bowers from WordWorks.  What a team!)

One of the first words we investigated as a class was ‘prejudice.’  We first encountered it while reading a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr..  It stood out as an interesting word,  along with discrimination, segregation, emancipation, equality, separate, justice, integration, civil, and protest.  Prior to January of 2013, we would have briefly talked about these words as they were used in the reading, and perhaps the students would have matched up the word to its definition on a worksheet.  No doubt a few of my students would have probably requested that these words be added to their weekly spelling test as “challenge words.”  But now I was looking forward to something different, something worthy, something that would change our understanding of English spelling.  After we investigated this word together, I split the students into small groups so they could each investigate one of the other words and share their findings.  So what did we learn with that very first investigation?  And how did that investigation shape all the ones I’ve guided students through since then?

Investigating ‘prejudice’

Let’s start with a screen shot from one of my earliest blog posts.  It was published on January 23, 2013.

You will notice that all five hypotheses identify <pre> as a morpheme.  More specifically, the students identified it as a prefix that they were familiar with.  The first hypothesis feels like syllabic division, doesn’t it?  The last hypothesis illustrates a knowledge of letters being “dropped” in spellings, but not a knowledge of when or why.  This was a great first step.

It is necessary at this point, to remind you that when I began bringing SWI into my classroom, my own understanding of English spelling was on a par with that of my students.  These were great hypotheses, but my own preferences over which one might be most likely were based on what “felt right” rather than what I could support with evidence.  I was talking the talk, but was in the weeds as far as having a personal knowledge of the regularities of English spelling.  But then again everything we do and want to understand begins with that first step, doesn’t it?  I was more excited to see what we could all learn through SWI than I was scared to reveal my own lack of knowledge.  My excitement overpowered my fear, and that turned out to be a good thing for all of us!

In the second step of our investigation, we read the entry for ‘prejudice’ at Etymonline.  We learned that this word was first attested in the 13th century.  At that time it meant “despite, contempt.”  Earlier in the same century, this word was used in Old French with the same spelling we see today.  Prior to it being in Old French, it was in Medieval Latin and spelled prejudicium.  Earlier yet it was spelled praejudicium in Latin where it meant “prior judgment.”  This earliest spelling could be analyzed as prae “before” and judicium “judge.”  We talked about the fact that the sense and meaning of this word hadn’t changed much in all the years that it has existed.  We use it today to denote a sense of prejudging a person and usually in a negative way.  At that point we felt ready to collect some words that might be related.  We were off to use Word Searcher by Neil Ramsden.

It was at this point that we missed an opportunity to have a better understanding of what we would be looking for at Word Searcher!  We had boatloads of enthusiasm, but lacked experience in conducting word investigations.  You see there was a hyperlink to the related word ‘judge’ in the entry at Etymonline that we ignored.  There was pertinent information related to the spelling of ‘judge’ that would have made us look differently at the words we found.  But we were eager and jumped a little too quickly to the next step.

We found a list of words that we knew to be related in meaning to both ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge.’  We thought about the spelling of each word and noticed which letters were exactly the same in each word. We wrote the word sums listed below and created the accompanying matrix.  The following is another screen shot from that January, 2013 blog post.

At this point we were pretty pleased with ourselves.  We had noticed that all of the words had <jud> in common.  We made the leap that it was the base.  Did I really think that <ge> was a suffix?  I thought, “Maybe.”  I mean, my head was just as full of “spelling is random” as my students’ heads were.  Let me interject that at this point I had been teaching for 18 years, and none of the spelling curriculum I had been handed talked much about suffixes beyond <ing>, <ed>, <s>, and a few others.  You added them to words, you removed them, and you learned rules like “Double, Drop, Change.”  Our spelling books focused more on the “vowel pattern” (pronunciation) and word use.  My college education didn’t include much information either.  There was a Language Arts textbook that was focused on teaching children to read, but it didn’t really reveal much about spelling.  Anything I knew about words and how they can be considered to be made up of parts, I deduced from my own K-12 schooling and by noticing words when I read.  Obviously I was missing some pretty foundational pieces!  Everything I was learning as I introduced Structured Word Inquiry to my students was as new to me as it was to them.  And I must say we had a glorious time learning together!

What is it that I missed?

Had I followed that hyperlink at Etymonline to the entry for ‘judge’, I would have learned that as a noun, it was first attested in the mid 14th century.  At that time it was used to mean “public officer appointed to administer the law.”  Earlier it was from Old French juger, and further back in Latin it was spelled as iudex and meant “one who declares the law.”  I might have been confused by the spelling in Latin.  Why was an <i> the first letter in the Latin spelling?  In Spellinars I have taken since (particularly Latin for Orthographers), I learned that in Latin, <i> and <j> were considered to be the same letter.  It may sound confusing, but the people who spoke Latin understood its use well.   Here is an excerpt from the book Letter Perfect by David Sacks which gives more information on this.

“… the shapes j and i were being used interchangeably to mean either a vowel sound or a consonant sound (which in English was “j”), and similarly, shapes U and V were used interchangeably for a vowel or a consonant, “u” or “v.”  In the hands of printers of the 1500s and 1600s, shapes J and V gradually became assigned to the consonant sounds.  Later J and V would officially joint the alphabet as our final two additions, letters 25 and 26.”

There are, of course, a number of books available that will provide a more complete understanding of these two letters, along with all the rest.  As I reflect on finding out that letters, too, have stories, I am reminded of a particularly lovely moment from a year ago.  We were looking at a sentence on the board and focusing on each of the words.  We were noticing what language each word was from.  A student raised her hand and asked a question that no student has ever thought to ask before. “If words have histories, and letters have histories, where do punctuation marks come from?  Do they have histories too?”   I still smile and can picture the student asking it.  I think it stays with me because it reveals  how curious this student had become about our language.  I like to picture this student slowly opening a door and seeing more of what’s on the other side, bit by bit.  The eyes widen in wonder.  Back to Etymonline’s entry for ‘judge.’

A less hurried scholar wouldn’t have stopped with the entry for ‘judge’ either.  I should have kept reading.  The next entry as you scroll down is for <judge> as a verb.  Its attestation date as a verb is 200 years earlier than as a noun!  At that time it was spelled iugen and was used to mean “examine, appraise, make a diagnosis.”  Moving forward to c 1300, it was used to mean “to form an opinion about; to inflict penalty upon, punish; try (someone) and pronounce sentence.”  Now moving back in time prior to its attestation date, this word is from Anglo-French juger, Old French jugier.  Further back it was from Latin iudicare meaning “to judge, to examine officially; form an opinion upon; pronounce judgment.”  From there we learn it is from iudicem (nominative iudex) “a judge.”  What comes next in the entry is very interesting.   The Latin iudicem was a compound of ius “right, law” (see just (adj.)) + root of dicere “to say.”  You can see that in the spelling of iudicem, right?

And then in the next paragraph there is this, “Spelling with -dg- emerged mid-15c.”  If I look back at the spellings of this word as it moved from one language to the next, I see that in Latin the first three letters were <iud>.  In Anglo-French and Old French, the first three letters were <jug>.  Then in mid-15c. the spelling with <dg> emerged.  Hmmm.  A good place to get evidence to illustrate this is the Oxford English Dictionary.  There are citings of the word being used over time.  Below I have listed the year and how one of the ways it was spelled at that time.  What is interesting is the inconsistency in spelling prior to 1500.  Then from 1500 to 1600 we see a consistent spelling, but with <i> instead of <j>.  As we learned earlier, it was with the use of the printing press that the <i> (when representing a consonant) came to be represented with a <j>.  It is also when <j> became an official letter of our alphabet.

?c1225  iuge
c1400   jugged
c1475    iugid
1486     Iuge
1534     iudge
1547     iudge
1597     iudge

1680     judged
1711      judge

What this information tells me is that the <ge> can’t possibly be a suffix in the words judge, judgment, judgmental, misjudge, or in many of the other words that were included in my first matrix.  What this information makes clear to me is that ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge’ do not share a base in modern English!  The <ge> cannot be a separate morpheme from the <jud> in the word ‘judge.’  How do I know that?  Because if I think about the graphemes in this word, I will note that there are three (j.u.dg) with the single final non-syllabic <e> functioning as a marker (marking the pronunciation of the <g>).  If the <d> is part of the digraph <dg>, it cannot cross the boundaries of the morphemes to do that.  Remember that a morpheme is made up of graphemes that represent phonemes.  And letters in two different morphemes can never combine to become one grapheme.

That understanding is something I didn’t have when I made that first matrix.  And that’s okay.  I believe that a matrix is more like a snapshot of one person’s understanding at a given moment in time than it is like an answer key for anyone else.  It is so tempting to see a matrix that someone else made and grab it to use in your own classroom.  In fact earlier this summer I saw a teacher happily sharing a whole set of word matrices that she made in preparation for this fall.  Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  But is there a good chance that many teachers will happily use those without looking carefully at them ahead of time? I think there is.  If there is something on the matrix that they question, my hunch is that they will distrust their own thoughts and assume that someone else’s work must be right.  It is so important to carefully look at a matrix and to question things that maybe you wouldn’t have put on there yourself.  My first matrix is a good example of that.  If other teachers use it without questioning that <ge> suffix I listed, they will spread their own misunderstanding.  They won’t be spreading mine because I have moved on from what I understood then.  From that one matrix, I made two that reflected our new understanding.  This is a common and acceptable part of learning, isn’t it?


I’m so glad that this experience was one of my first.  I’m glad I blogged about it then, and now I’m glad to be able to reassure others new to SWI that they can expect to learn along the way.   Here are two valuable things I have kept in mind as I have continued to jump into word investigations with students in the years since.

Let go of the need to be right all the time in front of students.  I used this opportunity to celebrate having learned something that probably felt quite obvious to others.  It’s not my fault that I didn’t learn about graphemes, phonemes, and morphemes until that point in time.  The students can relate to that feeling.  How often have you seen that look on a student’s face – the one where you know they are feeling bad because they didn’t know something everyone else seemed to know.  I make it a habit to share how delighted, even giddy I feel when I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know!  Enthusiasm is catchy!  And modeling this kind of response to having a misunderstanding gives students a healthy alternative to feeling bad.  There should be joy at having learned something.  And when a misunderstanding becomes an understanding, learning has occurred!

There is another side to this need to be right and to be ready.  Often we feel obligated to anticipate the questions that the students are likely to ask and to be ready with an answer.  If an unanticipated question is asked, we still feel the need to answer it as best we can.  What if we didn’t feel the need to answer every question?  Some of my absolute best classroom moments have happened when I put the question back on the student and listened to them think through their own question.  Or let others respond which gave the original questioner a different perspective – one that they didn’t have to assume was correct (like they might if it came from the teacher).  It is also a powerful thing to say in front of your students, “That is a brilliant question.  I have no idea what the answer is.  But I can tell you this. I will be thinking about your brilliant question all day!”

Don’t rush through the etymological story in order to get to the matrix.  The teacher I mentioned previously that shared a whole set of matrices with other teachers did so thinking she was doing them a favor.  They even thought that she was doing them a favor.  But what none of them realize is that researching and gathering a list of related words in preparation for a matrix is a marvelous opportunity to walk through a word sum hypothesis yourself.  Certainly there are words that may stump you (is that a prefix or a base?), but by figuring out where to look or perhaps who to ask, you get better at the process.  And when you feel better at the process, you can exude a calm when faced with uncertainties in your classroom.  Because of your experience, you will offer suggestions of where to look for the evidence to support the current thinking in regards to a specific word.  Exactly what do those teachers using someone else’s matrix know about the story of the base on each of those matrices?  What interesting tidbit can they share with their students (or find with their students) about that base’s history?  Can any of the graphemes in the base’s spelling be explained by information found in the word’s ancestry?  How old is the base and what language did it originate in?  Of all the words that can be completed using the elements on the matrix, which is the oldest?  The newest?

There are many reasons for using a matrix with students.  A person definitely doesn’t need to know everything I’ve mentioned above in every instance.  But there ARE interesting things to know, and quite often it is those interesting parts of the word’s story that are memorable to the students.  And we want the students to remember the words, right?  A matrix can be part of an activity, but if you present filled out matrices to your students week after week, what are your students learning about determining a word’s structure for themselves?  Think of it this way.  Is using someone else’s summary of a book a great way for you to completely understand the book yourself?  Of course not.  You would be missing many of the finer points.  Make sure your use of matrices is part of a larger picture of a word.  It should include the sense and meaning of the word, its etymology (which can reveal so many things), and a look at its grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  The matrix celebrates a family of words.  The other questions of SWI reveal the details of that family.

I guess my big message here is to mix up the way you use matrices.  Sometimes you create them, and sometimes your students create them.  Sometimes they are part of a full investigation, and sometimes they are used alone because there is something specific you want to highlight.  ALWAYS carefully consider a matrix that someone else has made.  If it jives with your understanding, great.  If it doesn’t, don’t assume that questioning it is off limits.  It doesn’t matter who created it!  Be discriminating and teach your students to do the same.  This is part of achieving a more solid understanding no matter what you are examining.

I have met many wonderful people while teaching my “Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom” online class.  At the first thought of using SWI, there is hesitancy.  There is a feeling that there is so much to learn before they could ever start using SWI with children.  It is true that there is much to learn.  But there are resources, classes, workshops, and people to help.  And there are the wise words of Aristotle.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Definitely take some classes and ask some questions.  By all means purchase a subscription to Real Spelling’s Tool Box 2!  And then begin doing, so you can learn.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is her poster.

And here is The Bachelorette – The Assimilated Prefix version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Have a Febriferous Illness, You Need a Febrifuge!

Ricard Canals (1876 – 1931)  Sick Child (Octavi, the artist’s son)  c1903

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fŭgĭo, fŭgere, fŭgi, fŭgĭtum
“run away”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Will a Pandemic Lead to Pandemonium?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at this list:

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

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

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

Noting the denotation of the  bound base <deme>, the relationship between all of these words is now obvious.  We’ve gone from understanding one word, to understanding ten!  Instead of meeting one member of a family, we’ve met the family!  We are much more likely to remember them when we meet again!

But have we met all of the members?  Why didn’t I come across <pandemonium> when I was looking into this family?  It appears to share both <pan> and <dem>,  doesn’t it?  I can certainly think of pandemonium as a chaotic situation involving people.  As changes are happening in the way we are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, it certainly feels like pandemonium!   The only way to know for sure is to look at Etymonline.

The first thing I notice is the 1667 spelling of this word.  Pandæmonium.  Notice the letter after the <d>?  That is the Old English letter known as ash.  We see that John Milton coined this word putting together Greek pan- “all” and Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit” which is from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” and before that from daimōn “lesser god.”  We see the same <pan> that we see in <pandemic>, but definitely not the same <deme>!

If we follow the link to <demon>, we find that it was first attested in the 12 c. and at that time meant “evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, devil.”  It is from Latin daemon and before that from Greek daimōn “divine power; lesser god.”  We have all the evidence we need to prove that the <deme> in <pandemic> is not the same <dem> that we see in <pandemonium>.  But is <dem> a base in this word?  That determination is something we haven’t collected enough evidence for.  So let’s gather a few morphological relatives of <demon>.  Below the entry for <demon> we see a list of related words.


Looking at this list of morphological relatives, it is obvious that the base is not <deme> as it is in <pandemic>, but <demon>!  And when I highlight the base as I have, it is easy to recognize some very familiar suffixes, isn’t it?  And before you point it out, yes, <arch> is a Hellenic base “ruler, leader, chief” and <loge> is also a Hellenic base “discourse, theory, science.”

Before we walk away from this investigation with the idea that pandemic is not related to pandemonium, we need to notice one more thing at Etymonline.  It is the Proto Indo European root for both <pandemic> and <pandemonium>.  Under the entry for <demotic> we see that Greek demos is from PIE *da-mo- “division,” from root *da- “to divide.”  Under the entry for <demon>, we see that Greek daimōn is from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider,” from root *da- “to divide.”  Looking at the entry for *da- we see this:

So I guess we can say that these two words are distant relatives!  Fascinating, isn’t it?   So what have we gained by going beyond a dictionary definition of the word <pandemic>?  How is what we have learned useful in understanding this word in the context of a current news story?  What we have learned not only deepens our sense of this word in this context, it also connects us to related words and prepares us for coming across any words in this family in the future.  The spelling ‘dem’ within a word will now be noticed by you and by me.  We will see it and pause for a moment considering whether it is the base <deme> having to do with people, the base <demon> having to do with evil spirits, or maybe not a morpheme on its own at all!  But the best part is that we have an understanding of those possibilities and will be able to determine which it is relatively quickly and get on with our reading!  You might say that Structured Word Inquiry helps you understand what you need to understand in the moment, but then also prepares you for words you will encounter as you read in the future.  A quick look in a dictionary just helps you in the moment.

I have just one more intriguing thing to share with you.  I came across this article today at Aleteia and couldn’t believe the irony.  It is about Saint Corona, whose remains are buried in Anzu, Italy, and who just happens to be one of the patron saints of pandemics.  If you’re like me, you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Is that for real?”  It is.  Read about it HERE.  Saint Corona died a tragic and disturbing death at age 16.

Wikipedia St. Corona, abt 1350


I’ve left you with the rest of the list we started with – the list of words related to our current world health crisis.  Besides a dictionary definition, what can you find out that would benefit your understanding now and also as you encounter other words in years to come?  Structured Word Inquiry affects your reading, your writing, and your enjoyment of learning!  If you find out really cool stuff, please share!


Crisis:  “A situation that has reached a critical phase.”   The spread of the coronavirus has caused a health crisis.

Coronavirus:  “any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19 .”   There are new cases of the coronavirus in the United States every day.

Contagious:  “Transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.”   The coronavirus is extremely contagious.

Quarantine:  “A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.”  People who have been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.


While We’re Apart, the Orthographic Understanding Can Continue …

One of the biggest strengths of teaching students Structured Word Inquiry is the level of independence that students develop while considering a word’s spelling. We ask them to notice predictable patterns and we teach them to ask questions that they can then investigate.  We show them reliable tools to use and then slowly back away, leaving the student finding out things for themselves.  Within the span of the school year, my goal is always to prepare my students to continue to wonder about words and to have the skills, the curiosity, and the understanding needed to independently investigate.

With other more traditional teaching methods, the students expect to receive information from the teacher.  The teacher becomes the one who knows whether that information is right or wrong.  The student does not learn to trust their own understanding.  They are constantly at the teacher’s desk saying, “Is this right?”

This very attribute of Structured Word Inquiry is what quiets my chaos as I prepare lessons for my students as we go to an unexpected break.  I don’t have to write out lengthy assignment directions.  As long as I know my students can get on the internet, I can count on them using Etymonline, Word Searcher, Mini Matrix Maker, Google Docs, and Youtube.  If it is determined that I need to send work that is not dependent on the internet, they can hypothesize word sums, make some games to play with someone, and write.

Yesterday our school was added to the list of schools who will be physically closing. Like most of the other schools, the teachers have been asked to continue to offer learning opportunities to the students.  Today I sat down to do some brainstorming.  If you are in a similar situation and are looking for ways to continue having your students study words with SWI, perhaps some of these ideas will work for you.  This list is not in any particular order.  As the ideas came to me I wrote them down.

    Suggestions for At-Home Orthographic Studies

1)    One of the activities I will ask them to do is the “Word Bag“. We did this earlier this year in groups of four. Each group was handed an envelope with words in it and asked to draw a circle.  They had to cooperatively decide what fit inside the circle, and what did not.  They had to write a word sum to show they understood the structure of the words inside the circle and how they all shared a base.  They also had to write a note to explain why the words outside of the circle did not fit.  As part of at-home work, I will ask students to create their own word bag. I will use this example in explaining what I want. It shows that we use no more than 10 words and that some are there, not because they fit, but because they are similar in some way without being related in meaning or in spelling.  For so many years, my students went without the understanding that morphology brings to spelling.  This practice will be valuable!

Whether they show them to their family or save them for when we reconvene, they will spend time thinking about words and word sums! I’m thinking of inviting students to Zoom on some of those days so we could do one together.  This idea is one I first read about at Lyn Anderson’s blog, Beyond the Word.  Check it out HERE.  She was working with very young beginning readers.  If your students are kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd, I recommend you look around at Lyn’s blog.  There may be other activities that you will know how to incorporate!  I have also read about the use of this idea at Rebecca Loveless’ blog.  Check it out HERE.  It was at Rebecca’s blog that I first heard of having the students create their own word bag.  The students she was working with were also at beginning reading level. 

2)  Matching game.  Give the students sheets that they can cut apart in order to play a matching game.  It could be a continuation of what has already been studied in the classroom.
It could involve matching:
~~bases to denotations (make sure these are bases they are familiar with)
~~bases to same base with a prefix (ex.  happy to unhappy)
~~assimilated forms of a prefix to bases  (ex. <col-> to <lide>, <cor-> to <corrode>)
~~bases to same base with a suffix  (ex. make to making)
~~two bases to make a compound word (ex. dog and house to make <doghouse>)
I’m sure you could add to this list.  Pick one or more and encourage the student to play with a sibling or family member.
3)  If you feel like this would be a good time to review the suffixing conventions, I have three videos featuring each one.  You could assign students to watch one and then follow it up with a list of words for which they could write synthetic word sums, and when “checking the joins”, decide if the suffixing convention would be applied or not.
***Replacing final <e>:

*** Doubling the final consonant on the base:

*** Toggling <y> to <i>:


4)  Conduct a word investigation.  Ask the student to choose a word to investigate.  Perhaps they will come across an intriguing word while reading a book, having a family discussion, completing some chores, or even playing a board game with their family.  Maybe they will come across a word that catches their attention while studying their math, social studies, or science.  I would supply them with a checklist so they collect the kind of information you want them to collect.  Here is an example of a checklist I use towards the beginning of the year.  At this point, my students know what kind of information is most handy, but without a teacher “check-in” the parents might appreciate such a checklist.

My students know that the amount of information they are able to find varies from word to word.  It might be a good idea to include links to Etymonline, Word Searcher, and Mini Matrix Maker.  For help with writing the word in IPA, my students use ToPhonetics.

They may not be able to make a poster, but they could make a booklet with regular sized paper.  They might also use either Google Slides, Power Point, Prezi, or any other creative presentation tool to share their findings.  Perhaps I will be able to offer them the opportunity to share their presentations via Zoom with me and any other interested students!

Here is an example of small group work my students did last year when they collaboratively chose a word and investigated it.  They originally created these as podcasts, but we extended them by adding images and made videos.  Perhaps you have a student who would enjoy taking it this far on their own or by involving their siblings or family!


5)  Have them google what a portmanteau word is.  Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of portmanteau words.  There is an exceptionally long list at Wikipedia.  Ask them to read through the various collections to find the ones they find most fascinating.  Have them write the two words that became the one.  Perhaps they can also collect images or do some drawing to illustrate a few of the collected portmanteau words.

6) Have them google what an oxymoron word is.  Once they have a definition of one, ask them to collect some examples of oxymorons, in a similar manner as they did for portmanteau words.  I like to incorporate this type of learning because they see how playful our language is!


7)  There are some great Youtube videos that are student friendly.  My students love watching this Greek Alphabet song.  They almost have the Greek alphabet memorized because of it.

8)  Another great video is one by lexicographer Erin McKean.  It is a TED talk called “Go Ahead:  Make Up New Words!”  This makes such a great point about dictionaries being a reflection of the people who use them rather than an authority about how people should use words.  Again, it also brings forth the notion that we can have fun with words.

9)  The last Youtube recommendation is any of Arika Okrent‘s videos.  My students are as intrigued by the illustrator of her videos as they are with the information shared.  We often watch them twice because of that.  Here is just one example of what I mean.  Her Youtube channel is filled with videos!

10)  Now how about some creative writing!  I love to suggest story or poetry writing using a prompt that is unexpected.  My students may furrow their brow at the first mention of the topic, but what they write is always amazing!  So what if the writing was from the perspective of a prefix or maybe a bound base.  Not only would they bring out their creativity, but they would be highlighting what they understand about their chosen topic.  I have done this in the past in science.  Possible topics were producers, herbivores, carnivores, detritivores, etc.  Some spoke generally and some named a specific herbivore/carnivore, etc.  They revealed who/what they were in the last line of their poem.

Possible topics in this situation might be:

~~bound bases
~~free bases
~~connecting vowel
~~compound word
~~word sum

I’m sure you could think of other possibilities as well.  If a story is what the writing leads to instead of a poem, that’s great too.  The point is to have the opportunity to think about what each of these are and what their role is in creating words.


11)  Make a board game.  Just last week, I had a student finish a board game that he created in which he was reviewing the assimilated prefix family <sub->!  He drew out a game board on paper and cut out cards with words that had an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms.  Using a dice he explained that each person had to collect four cards to finish the game.  You went around the board as many times as needed.  If you could explain why the particular prefix was being used (perhaps why <sup-> was used instead of the default prefix <sub-> with a base like <ply>), you could keep your card.  He and a friend played it several times and they both determined it was fun!


So!  Those are some suggestions for you.  I will be assigning several of them, depending on how many days we are away from our regular learning environment.  If I think of some more, my brain will make my eyes pop open sometime around 1:00 am this morning.  That is what usually happens.   In the morning I will reconsider those middle-of-the-night thoughts and add them to this list if I think they would be helpful to you.

Abstract Nouns – So Inspirational!

When I first meet my students, they have little experience writing poems.  They have only written haiku poems as far as I know.  And although I love haiku poems, I want them to experience writing in free verse.  I find so much more of a person’s personal truth can be revealed in a free verse poem than in any other type.  No matter what the topic is, bits of the writer start to show up in their very first poem.  It’s the kind of thing you recognize the more you know the student.  Their writer’s voice is there in their word choice.  It’s there in the way they put words together.  It’s there in the message they embed.  It’s there in the poem’s tone and feel.  My goal is to get them to recognize that they have a writer’s voice.

The very first poems we write towards the beginning of the year are poems inspired by a place.  That place is always the woods that is conveniently located out the backdoor of the school just beyond the k-2 playground.  The students go out with pencil and paper and I ask them to collect words that describe what they see.  I ask them to describe what the woods feels like, smells like, looks like, and sounds like.  They aren’t writing a poem at this point.  They are collecting described images.  I tell them that the more descriptions they collect, the more material they have to work with when we sit at our desks back in the classroom.  When it feels as if they have written all they are going to write (and of course, that is less for some and not enough time for some), we head back in.

Now I give them time to play around with what they wrote down.

“Have you grouped descriptions of the same object together?  Is there a logical order in which to arrange the thoughts?  Are there words that are close to what you intended but not quite?  Do you need a thesaurus?  Reread it.  Does it reflect what you saw, smelled, felt, heard?”

When there has been enough time to write a rough draft of their poem, we stop for the day.  The next day, I ask them to pull them out again and reread them.  Are they happy with them?  Does it reflect their experience in the woods and the way it felt to them?  If not, change up lines or words.  Feel free to move lines around.  When they are satisfied, they come to my desk and show me.

If they know how to format a poem, great.  If they don’t, I help them with that.  Next they type up their poem, leaving off their name.  The reason I have the leave off their name is so that I can make a packet of the poems (and yes, I include the poem I wrote on the same day).  Several days later, I pass out the packet of poems.  I give specific directions that we are going to read the poems without asking or trying to figure out who wrote them.  Instead of wondering who wrote them, we are going to focus on the poems themselves.  I call on three or four students to tell me something specific they liked about each poem.  If I notice that some students are not participating, I will tell them that I will be asking for their opinion on the next poem, so they should listen carefully as it’s being read.

Once we have read every poem in the packet, we go back through the packet and I let them have 3 guesses as to who wrote each of the poems.  If they don’t guess, I ask, “Who wrote this poem?”  The person who wrote it raises their hand.  It is fun to see the reactions when the writer is revealed because often this changes the way some students think of other students.  If we do this two or three times in the school year, students begin to guess correctly about certain poems because they begin to recognize the writing voice that students have.  That’s really cool to see!

The great thing about doing this is that every student gets some positive feedback on their poem.  It might be the way they ended the poem.  It might be a particular word they used that fit just right.  It might be an image they created with words that others could relate to.  It might be the overall feeling and tone of the poem.   It’s been an effective way to show each student that they have a point of view that others can relate to, and that they can communicate that with words.

After sharing poems in this way, the students are more willing to spend time writing poems.  I try to inspire that writing by giving them a poem to use as a model or by taking them to an inspiring location.  One day we went outside on a slightly drizzly day.  Another day we donned our coats and boots and walked into the woods on a day it was snowing!

This past January we were writing new poems.  The weather wasn’t particularly inspiring, so I thought of another idea.  Several years ago, I bought Sara Holbrook’s book, Practical Poetry.  I really liked the way she had her students develop poems around emotions.  I had my students do the same.  The poems were great!  But before long, I had broadened the topic to abstract nouns in general.  Emotions are abstract nouns, but so are personal characteristics and all sorts of things that end up being interesting poetry topics.

The day we began, I let the students brainstorm a collection of abstract nouns.  As a student thought of one, I had them write it on the board.  Once the board was full, I told them that they would be choosing one of the nouns to write a poem about.  They weren’t to describe the noun directly, but instead were to talk to the noun as if they could!  They were to say what it felt important to say.  I read some examples written by former students who used the topics of hatred, segregation, and prejudice (we were studying the Civil Rights Movement at the time).  I told them to try writing about a few of the nouns, testing to see which one they had the most to say about.  Here are ten examples of the poems written that week.



You’re the motor that keeps me going when I feel down.
You pick me up when I’m lacking strength.
You’re my best friend.
You cheer me up.
When I doubt myself, you say otherwise.
When I’m playing sports, you give me a boost.
In basketball, you say I can make it when I have a free throw.




Anger, I hate you.
You’re the one who gets me in trouble.
You bring out the fire in me
that either hurts someone
mentally or physically.

You make me mad.
When you take over,
I get out of control, and
I sometimes do bad things.

What I hate most about you
is that you bring out
the demon inside of me.
I hurt people when you come out.




You sir, are a super glue.
You stick to my memory
and become a forever regret.

I wish I could break the handcuffs
that keep us together,
but it will never happen.

All the faces staring
make me want to disintegrate
and fall into a world without you.

I wish I could just forget you,
or the time I was forced
to sing a stupid song
in a humiliating outfit.

Embarrassment scars you for life.




Stuck in the dark,
with nowhere to go.
Stuck in the dark,
With no one I know.

Stuck in the dark,
But still there is light.
Stuck in the dark,
All through the night.

Stuck in the dark,
But I’ll make it to the day.
Stuck in the dark,
But I’ll be okay.




Anger you burn inside me
like a fire
burning a house.

You make me want to shout
and yell
and hit things.

Sometimes you stay for a little bit,
other times
you decide to stay for days
or even weeks.

When I feel anger,
it feels like I’m trapped
in a world of your tricks.

Anger, you have no place inside me.




The scary dark figure
right behind you.
follows you ‘till night.
Then with a blink of an eye
he’s out of sight.
Nowhere to be seen.

Then it’s a new day.
And he follows you again.
Terrified, you scream.
Oh, it’s just my shadow.




I can not see you or feel you,
but  I know you’re coming.

All I wonder is,
are you going to change?
Will I change because of you?
Will my life change?
Can I be the reason that you change?

So many questions
for the future.




You are the breeze
that knocks me down a mountain.

You are faster than an airplane
yet slower than a turtle.

You can be disastrous
like hurricane Katrina
or nice and cool
like at a picnic.




I like it when you come.
I can do things and have
a more open mind with them.

You help me at home, at school,
at art, and everywhere in between.

Sometimes you give me
more than I can use.
Sometimes you are
just out of reach.




You hurt.
You start fights and rumors.
You cover things up.
You go on.
You don’t.

People could tell the truth,
but they use you instead.
With a lie, you can create
questions, and
ruined friendships.

Why do you exist?



One thing I really like about these poems is that it helped my students better understand how they feel about the meaning behind the nouns they chose.  I often tell them that writing helps you know your own thoughts better.  When you write about them, you don’t necessarily plan out how you feel before you start.  But by the time you are done, you have a pretty good idea of what that word means to you!  And if you can write it in such a way that others can relate to what you say, you’ve written a poem.  If you can write it in such a way that others can relate to it and are touched that you said it in a way they hadn’t thought of, then you have written a great poem!

Sometimes I’m Sorry … Sometimes Not So Much

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

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

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



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

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




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

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

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

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

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



Sorry for Being Annoying

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

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

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

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

Just kidding!
I’m way too funny!



Dear Sasha,

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

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

I looked all over town for you.
No luck.

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

I hadn’t looked yet,
the garage.

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



The Soccer Mistake

Dear Sammy,

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

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

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

Sincerely your friend,



My Apology To My Brother

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

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

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

For now,
it’s just us two.




Dear Wishley,

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

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

I didn’t realize
it would hurt like that.




Dear Muffin,

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

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

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

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

I miss you.




Do we make a din at dinner or do we dine during dinner at the diner?

Mel's Diner

Last week my students wrote poems.  As I was editing them, one of the errors I saw over and over was the use of <your> when <you’re> was needed.  With a recently viewed meme in mind, I wrote the following on the board:

your dinner

you’re dinner

As the students filed in and sat down, the giggles began.  Some recognized right away the meaning difference between these two.  I asked for a volunteer to share what “your dinner” means with the whole class.  Even though I could tell that many understood what each meant, it was interesting to me that there was some struggle in putting that understanding into words.  To say that “your dinner” means “your dinner” isn’t very clear, is it?  The understanding is so clear in the student’s mind, that they don’t realize they are not communicating that clarity.  The student who was defining “your dinner” went so far as to reach her hands out in front of her as if she was handing me a plate of something.

Such an important reminder!  I can never forget that even when I am confident that my students understand something, I must give them lots of opportunities to express that understanding either orally or in writing.  Expressing oneself with clarity comes with practice!

I asked if anyone could add words to that explanation that would help.  A student said, “It’s not my dinner, it’s yours.”  That helped because without using the word, it illustrated that the dinner is in “your” possession.  Since we have been identifying parts of speech in sentences lately, I asked what kinds of words both “your” and “dinner” were.  This is an understanding that is growing, but not fully there yet for all students, so I called on a student that I knew would be able to answer the question.  The student identified “your” as a possessive determiner that is announcing the noun “dinner.”  Great!  A possessive determiner makes sense because we understand that the dinner belongs to someone and that “dinner” is a noun.

Even more students were excited to explain the meaning of “you’re dinner.”  The student I called on said easily that “you’re” is short for “you are” so that this phrase is saying that “you will be eaten for dinner!”  Anyone who hadn’t been sure of the difference between these two phrases laughed at this point.  Students turned to one another and excitedly imagined telling each other that they were the dinner.  When it was time to regain their attention, I asked if anyone knew the word we use to name a word like “you’re.”  Several could kind of remember how it started but not the word.  So I said, “It’s called a contraction.”  Among the “Oh, yeah,” comments that I heard, one student in the front blurted out, “You mean like when someone’s having a baby?”  I gave the room full of ten-year-olds a moment to laugh uncomfortably before I replied.

“Well, actually, the sense in both situations isn’t that different.”
“Whaaaa?”  More giggles and sounds that expressed disbelief.
“When a momma human or animal is giving birth, the muscles contract to push the baby out.  When two words like ‘you’ and ‘are’ contract, the letters push together so intensely that one letter pops out.  We mark the missing letter with an apostrophe.”

Next I wrote the word ‘contraction’ on the board and asked for a word sum hypothesis.

Looking over what the student had written, I asked if anyone could offer evidence to support the idea of a <con> prefix.  Could anyone think of a word with one?


And then someone said, “Contract,” and when he did, one student made a funny face.  So I asked if contract was a familiar word.  Yes, it was.  What does it mean if you sign a contract with someone else?  A student replied that it meant there was an agreement between the two people. Great.  Now I looked back for the quizzical look I saw a few minutes ago.  I asked what the student was thinking.  She said, “I was thinking of ‘contract’.”  And as she said it I realized that she was putting the stress on the base <tract> instead of the prefix <con>.  What a delightful detour this would be!

So we talked about contracting a cold or a disease and how that was an action verb.  But when the stress was on the prefix <con>, the word was a noun.  We could say that for sure because we could use the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of it.  We could talk about a contract.

Because I didn’t want to leave the topic without a few more examples, I wrote two more words on the board that could likewise be read as a noun and a verb, depending on the stress placement.

With ‘record’, the students thought of the verb first with the stress on <cord>.  So I let them practice shifting that stress to then recognize the noun ‘record’ which might refer to the time to beat in a race (I want to beat my record of 22 minutes!).  I chose ‘combine’ on purpose.  I have several students who live on farms.  Those were the hands that popped up first on this one.  “A combine (stress on the prefix) is a machine used on a farm.  It is a noun.”

And, this being such a commonly used verb, most everyone was able to shift the stress to the base <bine> to read the verb “combine.”  Several gave examples of how it might be used in a sentence.

Then the very best question came from a student.  “If these words look the same, how do you know whether it’s being a noun or a verb?”  I thanked this student for giving us one more glorious opportunity to reinforce an important concept.  It is how the word is functioning within the sentence.  We have to look at where it is in the sentence and how it is functioning to know.  Seeing as the next item on our agenda for the day was grammar, I was particularly happy about setting the grammar lesson up in this way!

I was ready to get back to looking at the word sum for <contraction>, when I saw a hand waving in the air.  It belonged to someone who is less apt to contribute in class, so I called on him.  “What about ‘conscience?’  Does that have a <con> prefix?”  I love talking about this word and in particular the base of this word <sci>. The pronunciation is so different in members of its word family, that if you only hear the words conscience, conscious, and science, you might not realize that they even are the same base.

We have talked before about the structure of <science> being <sci + ence> and the base <sci> having a denotation of “know.”  So I applied that to <conscience>.  Your conscience is that part of you that knows right from wrong.  When we say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” it means to rely on those inner feelings that tell you which is a right choice and which is a wrong choice.  Then you will know what to do.  And then, of course, there is the word <conscious>.  When you are conscious, you know what is happening around you.  When you are unconscious, you do not!  Now back to the word sum for <contraction>.

I stated that we had just come up with a lot of evidence to show that <con> is a prefix in a lot of words, so it is quite plausible to think it might be a prefix in <contraction> as well.  Next it was time to think about the next element in the hypothesis, <tract>.  I asked if anyone could think of a word with <tract> in it.


Since I hadn’t even gotten to the word I wanted to investigate with them yet, I told them what I knew about this base.  (As opposed to looking it up at Etymonline with them.)  There are so many side trails we could take with initial questions like this one, that I need to balance when I share my understanding and when I have them dig for the understanding.  It has to do with how engaged they are and how long I predict that engagement will last.

I told them that the base <tract> has a denotation of “draw or pull.”  Then I asked, “Does a tractor have anything to do with drawing or pulling?”  They all nodded yes.  “What if your boots have traction on the ice?”  Again, they agreed that it would pull on the ice instead of sliding.  “When you subtract numbers, is there a sense of pulling down or drawing from the first number and taking some away?”  Yes, they could imagine that.  “And when we think of abstract nouns, aren’t we thinking of the nouns that aren’t concrete?  The ones that have been withdrawn from the concrete nouns?  The ones that are separate from material objects such as your chair, desk, and pencil?”

They could see it, but we talked about that denotation being strongest in the words ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’.  They had more of a physical sense of pulling and drawing whereas subtract and abstract were more of a mental image of pulling rather than that physical action.

So in the end, it was decided that our word sum hypothesis could make sense based on the fact that we recognized both <con> as a prefix and <tract> as a base.  We had already talked about the word <contract>, so we knew that <ion> was a suffix in this word.  Now on to the really interesting question for the day!

I asked if anyone had a word sum hypothesis for the word ‘dinner’.  As soon as I asked it, I turned to the class and rather excitedly said, “I’ve never thought about where this word comes from or what its word sum will be.  We will be learning about it together!”  Below is a picture of some of their hypotheses.

There was one more word sum that is not on the list above.  It was <di + nn + er>.

When we began the conversation about these four possibilities, we noticed that three of them had an <er> suffix.  We brainstormed a few words with a clear suffix and decided that an <er> suffix was plausible.  then we looked at the other identified elements.  Looking at the first hypothesis, I asked if anyone knew the word <din>.  They did not.  I explained that a din is an ongoing noise.  I could say that there was quite a din coming from the indoor recess area.  So then I wondered aloud if at dinner the participants were creating a din.  Hmmm.  The students thought that perhaps sometimes that is the case, but not always.  We thought that if the base was <din>, then we could imagine the <n> doubling when the <er> suffix was added.

The second hypothesis (<dinn + er>) was similar to the first.  The base is still listed as <dinn>, although unless this is an alternant spelling to <din>, this might be a different base or it might not be a base at all.

The third hypothesis (<dine/ + n + er>) was interesting too.  It put the related word <dine> in our minds.  It makes sense to think of dinner as being that time when we dine.  But it didn’t take long for someone to point out that we wouldn’t replace the single final non-syllabic <e> with a consonant.  Good point.  If the second <n> wasn’t part of this, it would be a solid hypothesis for <diner>!

When we got to the fourth hypothesis (<di + nn + er>), I modeled giving it every consideration even though in my own head I had doubts.  The students did not recognize <di> as a prefix, nor <nn> as a base.  So offhand, we could not think of much evidence to support this one.

We were now at that point where we needed a reliable etymological resource.  I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard.

There were a lot of interesting things in this entry.  First off we talked about how old this word was and that in the 1300’s it was used to mean “the first big meal of the day.”  Right away the students blurted that it is no longer the first big meal of the day.  As we read through the entry, we noticed that earlier than the 1300’s, this word was from the Old French disner “breakfast.”  When we go to the recontructed stem of Gallo-Roman (*desjunare) with a meaning of  “to break one’s fast,” we paused to think about what that meant.  There were a few students aware that the word breakfast meant to break one’s fast.  There were also a few who did not know what a fast was.  I explained that if their last meal was the night before, they fasted while they were asleep which means they did not eat while they were asleep.  Once they started eating their next meal (breakfast) they were breaking the fasting they were doing while sleeping!

The very next thing in the entry indicated that the reconstructed *desjunare was from the reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare.  Here’s where it gets especially interesting.  The reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare is from <dis> “do the opposite of” and Late Latin jejunare “to fast.  Wow.  So the word <dinner> is from a Vulgar Latin word that means “the opposite of fasting.”  We had to say this a few times out loud.  “To fast is not to eat.  And the word dinner derives from a word that means the opposite of not eating which means, of course, eating!

Since both *desjunare and *disjejunare are reconstructed, I didn’t feel as if we had evidence to say that in Modern English we could support a word sum like <di + nn + er>, but we could sure see the story of this word’s spelling in the history!  The prefix in <di> could definitely be an assimilated form of <dis>, and the <nn> could be representing <jejune> although I need to know more before I say that with any authority.  I left it like this with the students.  We are calling <dinner> a free base with the understanding that its literal meaning is to do the opposite of fasting.  We feel that it is strongly related to <diner>, but the two would not be on the same matrix.

We also talked about how dinner used to name the noonday meal and that it gradually shifted to later and later in the day.  I told them that when I was a little girl, my lunch time meal was called dinner and the evening meal was known as supper.  These days we think of dinner as our evening meal and lunch as, well, lunch!  As for supper, Etymonline says it is from Old French soper “evening meal.”  We may use dinner and supper interchangeably these days to refer to the last meal before bedtime, but as we have shown, they are not synonyms!  They have different meanings and stories!

Further down in the entry was this information:

Dinner-time is attested from late 14c.; dinner-hour is from 1750. Dinner-table is from 1784; dinner-jacket from 1852; dinner-party by 1780. Childish reduplication din-din is attested from 1905.

It was interesting to follow this list of extended uses for dinner and the years in which those uses were recorded.  What’s funny to me is that when I think of a dinner-jacket, I think of James Bond.  What was funny to the children was the use of  “din-din.”

At the end of the day after the students were gone, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the word sum hypothesis with the <di> prefix.  Was there evidence at the Oxford English Dictionary that would help me further?  Interestingly enough, the etymology information for <dinner> linked me to the etymology information for <diner>!


We see some of the same information here that we saw at Etymonline in the entry for <dinner>.  The smaller print says that disner contains the same elements ultimately as French déjeuner, Old French desjuner and owes its greater phonetic reduction to its belonging to an earlier period.  So the spelling reflects a phonetic reduction from one of the French spellings or perhaps from one of the late Latin reconstructed spellings.  My uncertainty about the direct path the spelling took is what I have based my decision on when I leave <dinner> as a free base.  Perhaps someone reading this will be able to direct me to another resource or have a deeper understanding of what I can learn from the OED entry.  Until then, I will only go as far in my analysis as I have evidence for.

This is the kind of teaching and learning I love.  The students find it interesting and are drawn in as participants in the critical thinking that is going on.  They are thinking carefully and learning what it means to “provide evidence in support of a hypothesis.”  Every time we read an etymological resource together, they understand how to better use the information offered there.  When I can, I point out a connection to some aspect of grammar that we are learning.  At the end of the day I was able to send them home and tell them to have a good din-din … especially if they were lucky enough to be having their dinner in a diner!

Delicious Food Served Sign


Waiting for the Tides to Change

Picture courtesy of www.willstevenphotography.com

When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you also begin to swim against the current in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading is simply the act of unlocking a code – that code being the letters of our alphabet.  In many such programs, teaching reading means beginning with isolated spoken sounds and matching them to written letters. That is followed by practice at “sounding it out.”  The newest buzz word for this is “orthographic mapping.”  The student is taught to attach a pronunciation to groups of 1-4 letters.  These letter groupings are somewhat consistent, but there are a lot of them to know to automaticity in order for a child to read fluently.  If “sounding out” a word can’t make it recognizable, it is deemed “irregular.” 

Those in the front lines (tutors, interventionists, and teachers of pre-k, kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in these phonics-first models or have grown up in a system using these models, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling.  Interrelated.  Not one first in isolation, but the three facets of a word coming together to explain its meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.  In this way the student is presented with a system right from the start.  They are not taught specific strategies for reading that are then misapplied to writing.  They are not taught that English spelling is crazy or that it cannot be understood.  Instead the students learn from the start how speaking, reading, and writing can be used to represent our thinking.  Much of the system we have is logical and predictable.  (Many of the suffixing and other conventions are predictable.  Learning that words are built from bases and that the spelling of bases within a morphological family is consistent is logical.)  Students learn how to question what they do not understand.  In fact their questions are encouraged and even celebrated, sending the underlying message that asking questions is key to learning.  They are taught to see meaning relationships between words that share a base element, and that even when the pronunciation within that word family shifts, the spelling doesn’t. They are taught that all words have a structure, a spelling, and a pronunciation that can be explained and understood.

When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, many trained educators who have experienced the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” figure this too is full of promises it can’t fulfill.  And when they hear there is no scope and sequence, they get downright jittery.  How in the world will they know what to say and what to teach without a teacher guide to tell them?  But that’s just it.  Structured Word Inquiry is NOT A PROGRAM.  It is a course of investigation driven by curiosity.  Rather than a list of words to learn each week, there are principles to visit and revisit via words chosen that enhance curricular content, are someone’s personal favorites, or are suggested for any of a number of reasons.  There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.

Ponder that for a moment.

There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.

In the education world, when a question is posed, everyone searches for an answer.  They stop when they get one they are satisfied with, and the conversation moves on.  But, especially in the sciences, don’t we accept that answers are temporary?  That at some future time, some scientist may discover a different answer to the same question?  A deeper understanding?  THAT is the same mindset I use when teaching Structured Word Inquiry.  Sometimes I refer to it as Scientific Word Investigation, which more appropriately represents the scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking that is integral to this.

Unfortunately, we live in an educational world in which most people have stopped wondering about a word’s spelling and have just fully accepted that our language has no rhyme or reason to it.  The teachers think they are teaching how our spelling system works, but if they are really really honest with themselves, they will admit that they wish they could explain the spelling of words like of, come, have, does, they, laugh, give, the, and countless others that end up on Word Walls in far too many classrooms.  Every year a child is in school, they encounter more and more of these words that the adults only know to shrug their shoulders at, reinforcing the idea that English spelling is crazy.  It is amazing to me that we all accept (and yes, I accepted it too for many years) the idea that there is no explanation to be had for words that can’t be sounded out.

But why is it like this?  Why aren’t the explanations accessible to teachers?  Why have teachers been told instead to use “rules” that don’t statistically work?  Not only am I referring to the old “I before E” rule, but also to the “Two Vowels Go Walking” rule.  Did you know that the “i before e” part of that rule is only accurate 75% of the time?  Or that the “except after c” part of that rule is only accurate 25% of the time?  Or that when looking at the top (meaning most common) 2,000 words, the “when two vowels go walking” rule was found to be accurate only 36% of the time?

Here are two more “rules” that deserve to be banned.  The first says, “When a stressed syllable ends in e, the long sound of the vowel is used, and the final e is silent.”  It works for words like bike, pope, and rake, and doesn’t work for give, love, and move.  Teachers will find it surprising that it is accurate only 68% of the time.  (Those teaching with SWI will recognize a different way to explain what is happening there – it has to do with the function of the single final non-syllabic <e>.) The second rule says, “When there is only one vowel in a stressed syllable and the vowel is followed by a consonant, the short vowel sound is used.”  This works for fix, hop, and cat, but not for mind, wild, and fold.  This one too works only 68% of the time.

I find it astounding that creative people have used their talents to come up with these “rules” instead of demanding to understand why words are spelled the way they are!  Is it really that there is no explanation?  Hardly.  Are the explanations really so complicated that teachers and children alike can’t learn or understand them?  Again, hardly.

In my opinion, the three biggest problems  are these:


The inaccuracies have been embedded in the teaching for so long that as a society we have become complacent.  There is a general acceptance of the notion that English spelling is crazy and can’t be understood.  We see this all over the internet.  People print what they perceive to be the ridiculousness of English spelling on coffee cups and T-shirts, and everybody laughs.  People offer proof of the craziness of English spelling by asking why ‘bomb’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘tomb’ or ‘comb’.  But who said they had to?  You can blame that expectation on teachers who first taught those people to read.  They may not have said it specifically, but after having students complete worksheet after worksheet with  cat, rat, sat, pat, tip, sip, rip, lip, and cup, sup, pup, children get the message.  Words that have the same letter string will always rhyme.  And no one ever tells them differently.  Children learn what you tell them, but also what you imply.


Teachers cannot teach what it is that they themselves do not understand.  This lack of understanding is so pervasive because there are very few colleges that equip teachers with orthographic understanding. The textbooks offered to future teachers of reading are smattered with the inaccurate rules listed above.  It would be difficult indeed to sort out what is worth using with children and what is not.  And the curricular materials school districts spend millions on every year are no different.  Many teachers can sense that the materials are not helping their students, but don’t know enough on their own to understand specifically what parts are utter nonsense.  All the company has to do is slap the words “evidence based” or “research based” on the cover, and the school districts are all in.  No one in any of those districts is reading any of that “evidence” or “research” and the company counts on that.  The companies simply put a new spin on the old content and market it.  School districts see where there are weaknesses in their ELA scores, and want to find something that will help their teachers improve scores and ultimately assist their students in becoming better at reading and writing.  They believe the companies know what they are doing.  But those administrators, like the teachers, like the teacher-prep colleges, and like the curricular material  companies don’t understand English spelling themselves.  The curriculum companies get as creative as they can in presenting spelling as a fun activity, but the bottom line is that one cannot teach what one doesn’t understand.


Many children will learn to read even without understanding how our spelling system works.   This is what keeps so many spelling programs and curricular materials in business.  It is also what keeps so many well meaning teachers and their students in the dark.  If a child can read, then what does it matter whether or not they understand a word’s spelling?  There will always be spellcheck, right?  This idea that reading is primarily about sounds represented as letters may seem to be so obvious when a child is learning to read.  But as they advance through the grades and encounter longer and more interesting words, their missing understanding about the morphology and the etymology that affects the phonology is the thing that becomes obvious.  Why don’t they know that some letters are etymological or orthographic markers, or that a word’s etymology has much to do with the graphemes that spell it?  Why weren’t they taught that English spelling is a system and that each year their understanding of that system could grow to accommodate any newly acquired words?  Instead it is assumed that if they learn to read in kindergarten and 1st grade, they will naturally maintain that reading proficiency and spelling proficiency automatically as they move through grades, even when the materials used include inaccurate information such as I’ve mentioned above.

An example of such nonsense was recently brought to my attention by a teacher using Words Their Way.  Her students were asked to spot the <un> in unplanned, unprepared, unlock and uncle.  Really?  The <un> in three of those words is obviously a prefix.  Why would ‘uncle’ be included here?  Are the students supposed to think it also has an <un> prefix, or is this just an indicator that children are not being taught that a word has structure (is comprised of morphemes)?  Then, within that same week, the same teacher told me about the task in which her students were supposed to spot the <re> in rethink, replay, reheat and reptile.  She wondered what she was missing.  Was there an <re> prefix in ‘reptile’?  Of course not.  This teacher was not missing anything, but her students sure were.  They were missing the framework by which to understand the words they were being asked to read and write.  They were missing being taught the structure (morphology), history (etymology), and using both of those to understand the pronunciation (phonology) of words.  They were missing feeling comfortable to ask questions about things that don’t make sense (whether or not the teacher has a ready answer).  The fact that students no longer ask questions about spelling by grade 4 should be a big red flag to teachers everywhere.  Sadly it isn’t.  The students have learned that the teacher won’t be able to answer or guide them to resources that would help anyway.  They have no expectation that English spelling will make sense.  That is sad.  It doesn’t need to be that way.

My students don’t deserve to be limited by the boundaries of my own understanding.

Wood Farm Fence Clip Art And 4Vector

As teachers, we often feel more effective if we can anticipate the questions our students might ask and be ready with an answer. When we can successfully do that, we feel knowledgeable and think we are presenting ourselves as knowledgeable to our students.  But there’s a catch to all that.  In many instances teachers create a façade of having background in content knowledge.  They have learned to rely on a teacher manual more than they rely on their own professional expertise.  I don’t really want my students believing that I know everything or that I have all the answers.  There are only a few students who would be brave enough to ask a question in that situation.  Most fear looking “stupid” by asking a “stupid” question in the presence of someone who appears to be an expert, whether or not that is actually the case.  If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your students don’t ask more questions, perhaps you have set up this atmosphere without realizing it.

Here’s an example of a well meaning teacher who tried to limit her students to her own level of understanding.  Each year I coordinate a Science Fair at our school.  I’ve been doing it for years.  (The simple reply to why I do it is that there are always those students who shine at the Science Fair in a way that is unexpected by adults/peers in their lives.  Those adults could be adults at school who only see certain aspects of the student (math, reading, behavior issues, etc.), or they could be extended family or neighbors.)  Anyway, one year there was a colleague who was guiding her own students through the process of getting ready for the Science Fair.  She approached me and asked if we might change the scope of the Fair just a bit.  Because she didn’t feel particularly knowledgeable about many areas in science, she was suggesting that we choose ten topics.  The students could then pick one of those topics for their Science Fair project.  In this way, she could anticipate questions and most likely be able to answer them as the students progressed through the weeks of experimenting.  It would make participating in the Science Fair more comfortable for her.

As much as I understood why she was asking this, I couldn’t agree to it.  It might eliminate the possibility of a student following a passion or interest.  We all know what happens when a student is forced to pick a topic they are not interested in.  That is not a way to encourage curiosity and creativity.  When one of my students picks a topic I have no background in, I tell them how excited I am that we will both be learning about the topic.  In fact, I find myself asking lots of questions when the student and I journal.  (Since I am now the lone science teacher at our grade level, journaling is how I communicate individually with the 75 students I currently prepare for the Science Fair.)  My own curiosity is aroused when a student picks a project or wonders about something no one else has picked or wondered about in the last 25 years of Science Fairs!  Instead of limiting the students to my own background knowledge, I embrace stretching my background knowledge to include something new, and I model the enthusiasm that goes along with learning!  It is very similar to how my students and I study the English spelling system.

My students and I find a sense of relief in the freedom that comes with not having to have the one right answer to every question.  And yes, I included myself there.  I never realized the “must know the right answer” burden I was carrying until I began investigating words. Since that day, I have moved forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students.  I have experienced the joy of scholarship, and that has fueled a passion for desiring to know more.  My students see me as someone who has a deeper understanding than they do, but also as someone who is eager to learn more.  I make a big deal when a student asks a question I never thought to ask about a word or about a spelling.  I make an even bigger deal when it is a great question that I don’t know the answer to.  Just as in my Science Fair example, I am excited to know that the student and I will both learn something useful!  My students are fully aware that I don’t know everything about English spelling.  I am not setting up any false illusions about that.  Yet we all understand that I am in the best position to guide the inquiries until they learn the process for themselves.  And that is my goal – to teach my students how to use SWI on their own to deepen their understanding of the words they wonder about.

Here’s another example of a teacher whose students are limited in their learning by the teacher’s background knowledge. This is something I read on a blog the other day.  The teacher is a kindergarten teacher who is teaching her students to read.  She is enthusiastic and sincere in wanting her students to succeed.  The task she describes is that of teaching sight words.  First she says the word in question.  Then she has them isolate the sounds they hear.  Then she shows them the letters that represent those sounds by writing them on the board (orthographic mapping).  She begins with the letters that represent a pronunciation that is predictable.  Then she unveils the letters that represent a pronunciation in a way that isn’t expected.

“Sometimes I like to get a little dramatic as I unveil the word. -Especially for really irregular ones…my students died laughing when I revealed the spelling for “of” and showed the shock and craziness of the word with my expressions.”

If she herself had an explanation for the spelling of <of>, surely she would offer it.  Since she doesn’t, she teaches her students that English spelling is often worthy of shocked looks and crazy expressions.  When I asked why she embeds this rather unhelpful implication in her teaching of reading and writing, she defended it by saying that it made the sight words memorable and that the learning was fun this way.

Now I completely understand the idea of making learning fun and memorable.  That is something I reflect on often in my own teaching.  But I have learned to draw the line when what becomes memorable is a false premise for future learning.  I understand that her goal for the school year is to have her students read and write.  What she is doing will probably help her succeed in that.  The method she is using is called Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI).  I have no doubt that students being taught by this method leave kindergarten being able to do some reading and writing.

So if a goal as important as reading and writing is met, what’s the harm in her method?  Well, let’s think about this.  If she is teaching all “irregular” words in this way, she is sending the specific message to her students that many spellings are crazy and cannot be understood.  And she is implying this over and over and over.  By the end of the year, their overall impression of our spelling system is set.  If the first grade teacher is also unequipped to explain words deemed “irregular”, then the students will receive a second year of subliminal messaging that “English spelling is unreliable and can’t be counted on to make sense.”  What happens in second grade?  More of the same?  At what point are the students given the “straight skinny” about their spelling system?  At what point do they meet a teacher who is willing to encourage their questions about why words are spelled the way they are and show them how to seek a deep understanding, knowing that what we understand is easier to remember? And if those students are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who can actually explain “irregular” spellings, along with supplying logical and predictable features of our spelling system, how on earth does that teacher have the time in one year to reset the attitude their previous teachers have nurtured?  This is not a hypothetical situation.  It is what I face every fall with each new fifth grade group.

Like I said before, I believe this kindergarten teacher’s desire to nurture successful readers is sincere.  But in a really huge way, isn’t she limiting their understanding to her own?  It is obvious that EBLI doesn’t offer any explanations for the spellings of sight words.  If it did, this teacher would use them.  Her heart is in the right place when it comes to doing right by her students.  But how possible is it to be truthful right from the start with beginning readers when the teacher is missing so much herself?  I often ponder this very idea because for years I didn’t question the idea of irregular words either.  I just accepted that irregular words are words that can’t be explained and need to be memorized.  This teacher is making that memorization fun, but in the end it is still just memorization.  There is no understanding being offered.  And I see a huge difference between “memorize this” and “understand this.”

Now let’s think for a moment about how a word ends up in the disgraceful “irregular” pile.  It has to do with the alphabetic principle.  We teach students that certain pronunciations will be spelled in certain ways using certain letters.  When a word’s spelling deviates from that, it is labeled “irregular.”  Some teachers (trying to make learning memorable) even shame the word by calling it “misbehaving.”  There are even those who go so far as to put the word in “jail”.  I love the fact that teachers are some of the most creative people I have ever met, but I also cringe when they use that creativity to disguise what it is that they themselves do not understand.

Unfortunately, too many teachers do not think young children are capable of understanding much about spelling.  Their excuse is that we need to limit their cognitive load.  Giving them a reason for a spelling, or planting any seeds about how fascinating and logical our spelling system actually is is out of the question in their minds.  In my opinion, when adults decide what a child’s capacity for learning is (without having met the child), that child is instantly disadvantaged.  If the only way to teach a child to read and write is to also teach the child that our spelling system is absurd and/or crazy, then I say find another way to teach reading and writing.

The number of classrooms in which children are being taught to read using SWI principles is growing every week.  Age appropriate explanations are provided to children in regards to any word’s spelling.  Right from the beginning, the children are taught to look for consistent spelling patterns,  morphemes, and to recognize word families.  They get lots of practice at recognizing grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  They are encouraged to notice things and to ask questions.  They enjoy making “word family” games for their classmates.  And at the end of the school year, they are reading and they are writing.  But most importantly, they are moving on to 1st grade expecting to read more, write more, and understand more about our language.  No one has to back up the bus and convince them that spelling is in fact logical and fascinating.  There is only a moving forward motion in their understanding!  Each year they revisit important principles and ask the questions that deepen everyone’s understanding.  They pull words out of context, investigate them at whatever level is appropriate, and notice other words that are related morphologically before putting the words back into context and discussing how understanding the word deepens its meaning within that context.  Some of the very same things taught or practiced in an SWI classroom are also what is being taught with a method like EBLI.  The major difference is the underlying belief that connects each year’s learning.

Imagine I had the choice of sending my young child to one of two classrooms.  In both classrooms, there is a strong chance that my child would learn to read and write.  The difference in the classrooms is this:  In classroom #1, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is illogical and a lot of the times so crazy you’ll want to roll your eyes at it.  They will memorize spellings without much understanding of why the word is spelled that way.  They will be taught that some words have explainable spelling patterns and that many do not.  They will practice sounding out words, and when a word can’t be sounded out, everyone will laugh at the word.  In classroom #2, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is reliable and logical.  They will immediately begin learning that words have structure and how understanding that fact will help them with building related words and spelling those related words.  They will learn a “spell it out” strategy in which they identify bases and graphemes within those bases at the same time they are learning the word’s pronunciation and its spelling.  They will learn that words have histories and that some words are very old.  They will be encouraged to ask questions about what they notice about a word’s spelling.  The teacher will help the students think through those questions.

I find it hard to believe people when they imply that it’s not possible to have the students leave kindergarten with the impression that there’s a reason for every spelling.
More and more teachers are proving the opposite of that every day.  If you are interested in finding out more about what happens in those SWI kindergarten classrooms, I encourage you to participate in study groups with Rebecca Loveless and Pete Bowers.  They have specifically worked with kindergarten teachers and their students.

It would be unrealistic to think we can teach without imposing (to some extent) the knowledge limits we each have.  But isn’t it our responsibility to constantly reflect on how our own limits affect our students?  I don’t like to think that I’ve invited my students into my yard (if we can think of my background knowledge as a yard with fences) and that they become prisoners there.  Or that if they ask questions about what is beyond that fence, I would need to make up cutesy explanations to keep them from exploring what I myself am not comfortable exploring.  I would rather think of this as me inviting them into my yard, and then when they ask questions about what’s on the other side of the fence, me going with them and modeling how to search for understanding.  In the process I would be showing them how to keep expanding their own yard by continually moving those fences.  When I am willing to either step outside my “fence” or to keep extending it, we all benefit as learners.

And here’s another thing that doesn’t often get considered.  Never forget that students are as deep-down satisfied to prove truths about our English language to themselves as we are!  When you spend year after year in classrooms in which the teacher is the expert, and you and your classmates are the buckets to be filled, this kind of investigating can be exhilarating!  Students find it refreshing, really, to be given the tools and the opportunity to raise a question and then to prove or disprove it to themselves.  My role becomes that of a guide, steering the questions the students have during an investigation back on them as often as possible, but also realizing when they have reached a point where they are truly stuck.

I might also add that I know of several adults with dyslexia who have shared with me their experiences of learning to read in school.  They were frustrated much of the time because they were asked to remember bits and pieces without a context.  Being told that our language was absurd or crazy made learning to read and write even harder because in effect they were being told it didn’t make sense.  Being given a solid understanding of the interrelationship of morphology, etymology, and phonology, however, has turned a truly laborious task into a fascinating one.  I’m not saying that their dyslexia has disappeared, but I am saying that they no longer feel as if they are staggering in the dark.  Those adults ask lots of questions and think through lots of their own hypotheses thanks to finding Structured Word Inquiry.  And every one of them is sharing their understanding with children.  They, more than almost anyone else, really get what a difference understanding the spelling system can make.

Doing what is right for children isn’t easy when you are swimming against the educational current.  When you have the guidelines of Structured Word Inquiry, when you  can see for yourself what is true, and when you can provide evidence to any doubtful package-loving administrators, you do so, and then you just keep swimming.  It’s what you do.

Image result for swimming against the current


Connecting Us to a Place

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

Image result for Maniac Magee

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

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

Here are some examples of what they wrote.

Drifting Away

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

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

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



At Home

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

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




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

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

But any little knock,
my dog will go crazy!



My Christmas

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

That’s why he’s worth the wait.




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

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

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

Now everyone is happy.




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





The warmth of my family enjoying a
wonderful Christmas together!

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

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

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

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

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

The love of being with a wonderful family!



The Morning

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

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

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




Water splashing in my fish tank
Stinky fish food

Pizza boxes everywhere
when my mom is not home

Bumpy walls help scratch my back

Apple cinnamon scent
that makes me feel at home.




Home is where my dad
makes rad brownies.

Where my family’s jokes
crack me up

Where me and my family
decorate the Christmas tree

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

Home is where my heart is.