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.
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
Do you remember the way you learned new vocabulary words when you were in school? If your teachers were like mine, they said something like, “Here is a list of vocabulary words from our lesson/story/curriculum that I think are important for you to know. Please use the dictionary and write a definition for each. Then use the word in a sentence.” Was that helpful as you moved forward in the lesson/story/curriculum? Yes. Yes, it was. You learned what the word meant for the context you were presented with, and you learned how to use it in a sentence. In this way, if you encountered that word in the future, you might remember what it meant and even be able to use it yourself. For so many years, I thought that was enough. I thought that there wasn’t anything else to know about a word. But I was wrong. I was soooo wrong! Let me illustrate by choosing a word we currently see in the news every day. Imagine that this is the list selected by your teacher as being words you should know to better understand the current health crisis situation.
Here’s what your teacher asks you to do: “Write a definition of each word and then use the word in a sentence.”
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” The coronavirus is causing a pandemic. (I used the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)
If we just stop there, we know something. We can connect that understanding to what we read in the news. But what if we looked more closely at this word? What if we fully investigated this word using Structured Word Inquiry? What more could we gain?
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” According to Etymonline, it was first attested in 1660. Before that it was in Late Latin as pandemus. Before that it was in Greek as pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common”, from pan- “all” and demos “people”. Interestingly enough it is modeled on the word <epidemic> which may be less broad in its reach than a pandemic. The clue to that being the morpheme <pan> “all” being used in <pandemic> versus the morpheme <epi> “among, upon” being used in <epidemic>.
“A disease can be declared an epidemic when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a pandemic, which affects an even wider geographical area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected.”
So an epidemic can become a pandemic, but a pandemic doesn’t become an epidemic. Interesting distinction!
Now that we have an understanding of what this word means, let’s collect some of its morphological and/or etymological relatives. Still looking at the entry for <pandemic> at Etymonline, we see a link to <demotic> and at the end of the paragraph <pandemia>. If we follow the link to <demotic>, we see <democracy>, <demography>, and <endemic>. Before I leave Etymonline to search elsewhere, I try one more thing. I type demos, the Hellenic root of this word into the search bar. When I do that, many of the same words come up. But there is one I didn’t find earlier — <demogogue>. What a worthy addition to this group of morphological relatives.
Let’s take a look at this list:
pandemic — disease outbreak reaching all the people
epidemic — disease outbreak among a group of people demotic — preferring to common people pandemia — epidemic that attacks all people democracy — government by the people democratic — favoring government by the people demography — studying the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people demographic — relating to the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people
endemic — particular to a specific place group of people demogogue — leader seeking political power by pandering to prejudices, fears, and ignorance of the people
Here is the grapheme/phoneme correspondence for <pandemic>:
Noting the denotation of the bound base <deme>, the relationship between all of these words is now obvious. We’ve gone from understanding one word, to understanding ten! Instead of meeting one member of a family, we’ve met the family! We are much more likely to remember them when we meet again!
But have we met all of the members? Why didn’t I come across <pandemonium> when I was looking into this family? It appears to share both <pan> and <dem>, doesn’t it? I can certainly think of pandemonium as a chaotic situation involving people. As changes are happening in the way we are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, it certainly feels like pandemonium! The only way to know for sure is to look at Etymonline.
The first thing I notice is the 1667 spelling of this word. Pandæmonium. Notice the letter after the <d>? That is the Old English letter known as ash. We see that John Milton coined this word putting together Greek pan- “all” and Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit” which is from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” and before that from daimōn “lesser god.” We see the same <pan> that we see in <pandemic>, but definitely not the same <deme>!
If we follow the link to <demon>, we find that it was first attested in the 12 c. and at that time meant “evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, devil.” It is from Latin daemon and before that from Greek daimōn “divine power; lesser god.” We have all the evidence we need to prove that the <deme> in <pandemic> is not the same <dem> that we see in <pandemonium>. But is <dem> a base in this word? That determination is something we haven’t collected enough evidence for. So let’s gather a few morphological relatives of <demon>. Below the entry for <demon> we see a list of related words.
Looking at this list of morphological relatives, it is obvious that the base is not <deme> as it is in <pandemic>, but <demon>! And when I highlight the base as I have, it is easy to recognize some very familiar suffixes, isn’t it? And before you point it out, yes, <arch> is a Hellenic base “ruler, leader, chief” and <loge> is also a Hellenic base “discourse, theory, science.”
Before we walk away from this investigation with the idea that pandemic is not related to pandemonium, we need to notice one more thing at Etymonline. It is the Proto Indo European root for both <pandemic> and <pandemonium>. Under the entry for <demotic> we see that Greek demos is from PIE *da-mo- “division,” from root *da- “to divide.” Under the entry for <demon>, we see that Greek daimōn is from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider,” from root *da- “to divide.” Looking at the entry for *da- we see this:
So I guess we can say that these two words are distant relatives! Fascinating, isn’t it? So what have we gained by going beyond a dictionary definition of the word <pandemic>? How is what we have learned useful in understanding this word in the context of a current news story? What we have learned not only deepens our sense of this word in this context, it also connects us to related words and prepares us for coming across any words in this family in the future. The spelling ‘dem’ within a word will now be noticed by you and by me. We will see it and pause for a moment considering whether it is the base <deme> having to do with people, the base <demon> having to do with evil spirits, or maybe not a morpheme on its own at all! But the best part is that we have an understanding of those possibilities and will be able to determine which it is relatively quickly and get on with our reading! You might say that Structured Word Inquiry helps you understand what you need to understand in the moment, but then also prepares you for words you will encounter as you read in the future. A quick look in a dictionary just helps you in the moment.
I have just one more intriguing thing to share with you. I came across this article today at Aleteia and couldn’t believe the irony. It is about Saint Corona, whose remains are buried in Anzu, Italy, and who just happens to be one of the patron saints of pandemics. If you’re like me, you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Is that for real?” It is. Read about it HERE. Saint Corona died a tragic and disturbing death at age 16.
Wikipedia St. Corona, abt 1350
I’ve left you with the rest of the list we started with – the list of words related to our current world health crisis. Besides a dictionary definition, what can you find out that would benefit your understanding now and also as you encounter other words in years to come? Structured Word Inquiry affects your reading, your writing, and your enjoyment of learning! If you find out really cool stuff, please share!
Crisis: “A situation that has reached a critical phase.” The spread of the coronavirus has caused a health crisis.
Coronavirus: “any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19 .” There are new cases of the coronavirus in the United States every day.
Contagious: “Transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.” The coronavirus is extremely contagious.
Quarantine: “A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.” People who have been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.
One of the biggest strengths of teaching students Structured Word Inquiry is the level of independence that students develop while considering a word’s spelling. We ask them to notice predictable patterns and we teach them to ask questions that they can then investigate. We show them reliable tools to use and then slowly back away, leaving the student finding out things for themselves. Within the span of the school year, my goal is always to prepare my students to continue to wonder about words and to have the skills, the curiosity, and the understanding needed to independently investigate.
With other more traditional teaching methods, the students expect to receive information from the teacher. The teacher becomes the one who knows whether that information is right or wrong. The student does not learn to trust their own understanding. They are constantly at the teacher’s desk saying, “Is this right?”
This very attribute of Structured Word Inquiry is what quiets my chaos as I prepare lessons for my students as we go to an unexpected break. I don’t have to write out lengthy assignment directions. As long as I know my students can get on the internet, I can count on them using Etymonline, Word Searcher, Mini Matrix Maker, Google Docs, and Youtube. If it is determined that I need to send work that is not dependent on the internet, they can hypothesize word sums, make some games to play with someone, and write.
Yesterday our school was added to the list of schools who will be physically closing. Like most of the other schools, the teachers have been asked to continue to offer learning opportunities to the students. Today I sat down to do some brainstorming. If you are in a similar situation and are looking for ways to continue having your students study words with SWI, perhaps some of these ideas will work for you. This list is not in any particular order. As the ideas came to me I wrote them down.
Suggestions for At-Home Orthographic Studies
1) One of the activities I will ask them to do is the “Word Bag“. We did this earlier this year in groups of four. Each group was handed an envelope with words in it and asked to draw a circle. They had to cooperatively decide what fit inside the circle, and what did not. They had to write a word sum to show they understood the structure of the words inside the circle and how they all shared a base. They also had to write a note to explain why the words outside of the circle did not fit. As part of at-home work, I will ask students to create their own word bag. I will use this example in explaining what I want. It shows that we use no more than 10 words and that some are there, not because they fit, but because they are similar in some way without being related in meaning or in spelling. For so many years, my students went without the understanding that morphology brings to spelling. This practice will be valuable!
Whether they show them to their family or save them for when we reconvene, they will spend time thinking about words and word sums! I’m thinking of inviting students to Zoom on some of those days so we could do one together. This idea is one I first read about at Lyn Anderson’s blog, Beyond the Word. Check it out HERE. She was working with very young beginning readers. If your students are kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd, I recommend you look around at Lyn’s blog. There may be other activities that you will know how to incorporate! I have also read about the use of this idea at Rebecca Loveless’ blog. Check it out HERE. It was at Rebecca’s blog that I first heard of having the students create their own word bag. The students she was working with were also at beginning reading level.
2) Matching game. Give the students sheets that they can cut apart in order to play a matching game. It could be a continuation of what has already been studied in the classroom.
It could involve matching:
~~bases to denotations (make sure these are bases they are familiar with)
~~bases to same base with a prefix (ex. happy to unhappy)
~~assimilated forms of a prefix to bases (ex. <col-> to <lide>, <cor-> to <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:
I’m sure you could think of other possibilities as well. If a story is what the writing leads to instead of a poem, that’s great too. The point is to have the opportunity to think about what each of these are and what their role is in creating words.
11) Make a board game. Just last week, I had a student finish a board game that he created in which he was reviewing the assimilated prefix family <sub->! He drew out a game board on paper and cut out cards with words that had an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms. Using a dice he explained that each person had to collect four cards to finish the game. You went around the board as many times as needed. If you could explain why the particular prefix was being used (perhaps why <sup-> was used instead of the default prefix <sub-> with a base like <ply>), you could keep your card. He and a friend played it several times and they both determined it was fun!
So! Those are some suggestions for you. I will be assigning several of them, depending on how many days we are away from our regular learning environment. If I think of some more, my brain will make my eyes pop open sometime around 1:00 am this morning. That is what usually happens. In the morning I will reconsider those middle-of-the-night thoughts and add them to this list if I think they would be helpful to you.
When I 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 hit things.
Sometimes you stay for a little bit,
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 start fights and rumors.
You cover things up.
You go on.
People could tell the truth,
but they use you instead.
With a lie, you can create
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!
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,
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,
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 way too funny!
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
I looked all over town for you.
I went back home to look again.
Then I looked in the one spot
I hadn’t looked yet,
I opened the door and sure enough,
there you were sitting on the couch.
The Soccer Mistake
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
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.
it’s just us two.
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.
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.
Last week my students wrote poems. As I was editing them, one of the errors I saw over and over was the use of <your> when <you’re> was needed. With a recently viewed meme in mind, I wrote the following on the board:
As the students filed in and sat down, the giggles began. Some recognized right away the meaning difference between these two. I asked for a volunteer to share what “your dinner” means with the whole class. Even though I could tell that many understood what each meant, it was interesting to me that there was some struggle in putting that understanding into words. To say that “your dinner” means “your dinner” isn’t very clear, is it? The understanding is so clear in the student’s mind, that they don’t realize they are not communicating that clarity. The student who was defining “your dinner” went so far as to reach her hands out in front of her as if she was handing me a plate of something.
Such an important reminder! I can never forget that even when I am confident that my students understand something, I must give them lots of opportunities to express that understanding either orally or in writing. Expressing oneself with clarity comes with practice!
I asked if anyone could add words to that explanation that would help. A student said, “It’s not my dinner, it’s yours.” That helped because without using the word, it illustrated that the dinner is in “your” possession. Since we have been identifying parts of speech in sentences lately, I asked what kinds of words both “your” and “dinner” were. This is an understanding that is growing, but not fully there yet for all students, so I called on a student that I knew would be able to answer the question. The student identified “your” as a possessive determiner that is announcing the noun “dinner.” Great! A possessive determiner makes sense because we understand that the dinner belongs to someone and that “dinner” is a noun.
Even more students were excited to explain the meaning of “you’re dinner.” The student I called on said easily that “you’re” is short for “you are” so that this phrase is saying that “you will be eaten for dinner!” Anyone who hadn’t been sure of the difference between these two phrases laughed at this point. Students turned to one another and excitedly imagined telling each other that they were the dinner. When it was time to regain their attention, I asked if anyone knew the word we use to name a word like “you’re.” Several could kind of remember how it started but not the word. So I said, “It’s called a contraction.” Among the “Oh, yeah,” comments that I heard, one student in the front blurted out, “You mean like when someone’s having a baby?” I gave the room full of ten-year-olds a moment to laugh uncomfortably before I replied.
“Well, actually, the sense in both situations isn’t that different.”
“Whaaaa?” More giggles and sounds that expressed disbelief.
“When a momma human or animal is giving birth, the muscles contract to push the baby out. When two words like ‘you’ and ‘are’ contract, the letters push together so intensely that one letter pops out. We mark the missing letter with an apostrophe.”
Next I wrote the word ‘contraction’ on the board and asked for a word sum hypothesis.
Looking over what the student had written, I asked if anyone could offer evidence to support the idea of a <con> prefix. Could anyone think of a word with one?
And then someone said, “Contract,” and when he did, one student made a funny face. So I asked if contract was a familiar word. Yes, it was. What does it mean if you sign a contract with someone else? A student replied that it meant there was an agreement between the two people. Great. Now I looked back for the quizzical look I saw a few minutes ago. I asked what the student was thinking. She said, “I was thinking of ‘contract’.” And as she said it I realized that she was putting the stress on the base <tract> instead of the prefix <con>. What a delightful detour this would be!
So we talked about contracting a cold or a disease and how that was an action verb. But when the stress was on the prefix <con>, the word was a noun. We could say that for sure because we could use the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of it. We could talk about a contract.
Because I didn’t want to leave the topic without a few more examples, I wrote two more words on the board that could likewise be read as a noun and a verb, depending on the stress placement.
With ‘record’, the students thought of the verb first with the stress on <cord>. So I let them practice shifting that stress to then recognize the noun ‘record’ which might refer to the time to beat in a race (I want to beat my record of 22 minutes!). I chose ‘combine’ on purpose. I have several students who live on farms. Those were the hands that popped up first on this one. “A combine (stress on the prefix) is a machine used on a farm. It is a noun.”
And, this being such a commonly used verb, most everyone was able to shift the stress to the base <bine> to read the verb “combine.” Several gave examples of how it might be used in a sentence.
Then the very best question came from a student. “If these words look the same, how do you know whether it’s being a noun or a verb?” I thanked this student for giving us one more glorious opportunity to reinforce an important concept. It is how the word is functioning within the sentence. We have to look at where it is in the sentence and how it is functioning to know. Seeing as the next item on our agenda for the day was grammar, I was particularly happy about setting the grammar lesson up in this way!
I was ready to get back to looking at the word sum for <contraction>, when I saw a hand waving in the air. It belonged to someone who is less apt to contribute in class, so I called on him. “What about ‘conscience?’ Does that have a <con> prefix?” I love talking about this word and in particular the base of this word <sci>. The pronunciation is so different in members of its word family, that if you only hear the words conscience, conscious, and science, you might not realize that they even are the same base.
We have talked before about the structure of <science> being <sci + ence> and the base <sci> having a denotation of “know.” So I applied that to <conscience>. Your conscience is that part of you that knows right from wrong. When we say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” it means to rely on those inner feelings that tell you which is a right choice and which is a wrong choice. Then you will know what to do. And then, of course, there is the word <conscious>. When you are conscious, you know what is happening around you. When you are unconscious, you do not! Now back to the word sum for <contraction>.
I stated that we had just come up with a lot of evidence to show that <con> is a prefix in a lot of words, so it is quite plausible to think it might be a prefix in <contraction> as well. Next it was time to think about the next element in the hypothesis, <tract>. I asked if anyone could think of a word with <tract> in it.
Since I hadn’t even gotten to the word I wanted to investigate with them yet, I told them what I knew about this base. (As opposed to looking it up at Etymonline with them.) There are so many side trails we could take with initial questions like this one, that I need to balance when I share my understanding and when I have them dig for the understanding. It has to do with how engaged they are and how long I predict that engagement will last.
I told them that the base <tract> has a denotation of “draw or pull.” Then I asked, “Does a tractor have anything to do with drawing or pulling?” They all nodded yes. “What if your boots have traction on the ice?” Again, they agreed that it would pull on the ice instead of sliding. “When you subtract numbers, is there a sense of pulling down or drawing from the first number and taking some away?” Yes, they could imagine that. “And when we think of abstract nouns, aren’t we thinking of the nouns that aren’t concrete? The ones that have been withdrawn from the concrete nouns? The ones that are separate from material objects such as your chair, desk, and pencil?”
They could see it, but we talked about that denotation being strongest in the words ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’. They had more of a physical sense of pulling and drawing whereas subtract and abstract were more of a mental image of pulling rather than that physical action.
So in the end, it was decided that our word sum hypothesis could make sense based on the fact that we recognized both <con> as a prefix and <tract> as a base. We had already talked about the word <contract>, so we knew that <ion> was a suffix in this word. Now on to the really interesting question for the day!
I asked if anyone had a word sum hypothesis for the word ‘dinner’. As soon as I asked it, I turned to the class and rather excitedly said, “I’ve never thought about where this word comes from or what its word sum will be. We will be learning about it together!” Below is a picture of some of their hypotheses.
There was one more word sum that is not on the list above. It was <di + nn + er>.
When we began the conversation about these four possibilities, we noticed that three of them had an <er> suffix. We brainstormed a few words with a clear suffix and decided that an <er> suffix was plausible. then we looked at the other identified elements. Looking at the first hypothesis, I asked if anyone knew the word <din>. They did not. I explained that a din is an ongoing noise. I could say that there was quite a din coming from the indoor recess area. So then I wondered aloud if at dinner the participants were creating a din. Hmmm. The students thought that perhaps sometimes that is the case, but not always. We thought that if the base was <din>, then we could imagine the <n> doubling when the <er> suffix was added.
The second hypothesis (<dinn + er>) was similar to the first. The base is still listed as <dinn>, although unless this is an alternant spelling to <din>, this might be a different base or it might not be a base at all.
The third hypothesis (<dine/ + n + er>) was interesting too. It put the related word <dine> in our minds. It makes sense to think of dinner as being that time when we dine. But it didn’t take long for someone to point out that we wouldn’t replace the single final non-syllabic <e> with a consonant. Good point. If the second <n> wasn’t part of this, it would be a solid hypothesis for <diner>!
When we got to the fourth hypothesis (<di + nn + er>), I modeled giving it every consideration even though in my own head I had doubts. The students did not recognize <di> as a prefix, nor <nn> as a base. So offhand, we could not think of much evidence to support this one.
We were now at that point where we needed a reliable etymological resource. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard.
There were a lot of interesting things in this entry. First off we talked about how old this word was and that in the 1300’s it was used to mean “the first big meal of the day.” Right away the students blurted that it is no longer the first big meal of the day. As we read through the entry, we noticed that earlier than the 1300’s, this word was from the Old French disner “breakfast.” When we go to the recontructed stem of Gallo-Roman (*desjunare) with a meaning of “to break one’s fast,” we paused to think about what that meant. There were a few students aware that the word breakfast meant to break one’s fast. There were also a few who did not know what a fast was. I explained that if their last meal was the night before, they fasted while they were asleep which means they did not eat while they were asleep. Once they started eating their next meal (breakfast) they were breaking the fasting they were doing while sleeping!
The very next thing in the entry indicated that the reconstructed *desjunare was from the reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare. Here’s where it gets especially interesting. The reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare is from <dis> “do the opposite of” and Late Latin jejunare “to fast. Wow. So the word <dinner> is from a Vulgar Latin word that means “the opposite of fasting.” We had to say this a few times out loud. “To fast is not to eat. And the word dinner derives from a word that means the opposite of not eating which means, of course, eating!
Since both *desjunare and *disjejunare are reconstructed, I didn’t feel as if we had evidence to say that in Modern English we could support a word sum like <di + nn + er>, but we could sure see the story of this word’s spelling in the history! The prefix in <di> could definitely be an assimilated form of <dis>, and the <nn> could be representing <jejune> although I need to know more before I say that with any authority. I left it like this with the students. We are calling <dinner> a free base with the understanding that its literal meaning is to do the opposite of fasting. We feel that it is strongly related to <diner>, but the two would not be on the same matrix.
We also talked about how dinner used to name the noonday meal and that it gradually shifted to later and later in the day. I told them that when I was a little girl, my lunch time meal was called dinner and the evening meal was known as supper. These days we think of dinner as our evening meal and lunch as, well, lunch! As for supper, Etymonline says it is from Old French soper “evening meal.” We may use dinner and supper interchangeably these days to refer to the last meal before bedtime, but as we have shown, they are not synonyms! They have different meanings and stories!
Further down in the entry was this information:
Dinner-time is attested from late 14c.; dinner-hour is from 1750. Dinner-table is from 1784; dinner-jacket from 1852; dinner-party by 1780. Childish reduplication din-din is attested from 1905.
It was interesting to follow this list of extended uses for dinner and the years in which those uses were recorded. What’s funny to me is that when I think of a dinner-jacket, I think of James Bond. What was funny to the children was the use of “din-din.”
At the end of the day after the students were gone, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the word sum hypothesis with the <di> prefix. Was there evidence at the Oxford English Dictionary that would help me further? Interestingly enough, the etymology information for <dinner> linked me to the etymology information for <diner>!
We see some of the same information here that we saw at Etymonline in the entry for <dinner>. The smaller print says that disner contains the same elements ultimately as French déjeuner, Old French desjuner and owes its greater phonetic reduction to its belonging to an earlier period. So the spelling reflects a phonetic reduction from one of the French spellings or perhaps from one of the late Latin reconstructed spellings. My uncertainty about the direct path the spelling took is what I have based my decision on when I leave <dinner> as a free base. Perhaps someone reading this will be able to direct me to another resource or have a deeper understanding of what I can learn from the OED entry. Until then, I will only go as far in my analysis as I have evidence for.
This is the kind of teaching and learning I love. The students find it interesting and are drawn in as participants in the critical thinking that is going on. They are thinking carefully and learning what it means to “provide evidence in support of a hypothesis.” Every time we read an etymological resource together, they understand how to better use the information offered there. When I can, I point out a connection to some aspect of grammar that we are learning. At the end of the day I was able to send them home and tell them to have a good din-din … especially if they were lucky enough to be having their dinner in a diner!
When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you also begin to swim against the current in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading is simply the act of unlocking a code – that code being the letters of our alphabet. In many such programs, teaching reading means beginning with isolated spoken sounds and matching them to written letters. That is followed by practice at “sounding it out.” The newest buzz word for this is “orthographic mapping.” The student is taught to attach a pronunciation to groups of 1-4 letters. These letter groupings are somewhat consistent, but there are a lot of them to know to automaticity in order for a child to read fluently. If “sounding out” a word can’t make it recognizable, it is deemed “irregular.”
Those in the front lines (tutors, interventionists, and teachers of pre-k, kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in these phonics-first models or have grown up in a system using these models, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling. Interrelated. Not one first in isolation, but the three facets of a word coming together to explain its meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. In this way the student is presented with a system right from the start. They are not taught specific strategies for reading that are then misapplied to writing. They are not taught that English spelling is crazy or that it cannot be understood. Instead the students learn from the start how speaking, reading, and writing can be used to represent our thinking. Much of the system we have is logical and predictable. (Many of the suffixing and other conventions are predictable. Learning that words are built from bases and that the spelling of bases within a morphological family is consistent is logical.) Students learn how to question what they do not understand. In fact their questions are encouraged and even celebrated, sending the underlying message that asking questions is key to learning. They are taught to see meaning relationships between words that share a base element, and that even when the pronunciation within that word family shifts, the spelling doesn’t. They are taught that all words have a structure, a spelling, and a pronunciation that can be explained and understood.
When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, many trained educators who have experienced the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” figure this too is full of promises it can’t fulfill. And when they hear there is no scope and sequence, they get downright jittery. How in the world will they know what to say and what to teach without a teacher guide to tell them? But that’s just it. Structured Word Inquiry is NOT A PROGRAM. It is a course of investigation driven by curiosity. Rather than a list of words to learn each week, there are principles to visit and revisit via words chosen that enhance curricular content, are someone’s personal favorites, or are suggested for any of a number of reasons. There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
Ponder that for a moment.
There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
In the education world, when a question is posed, everyone searches for an answer. They stop when they get one they are satisfied with, and the conversation moves on. But, especially in the sciences, don’t we accept that answers are temporary? That at some future time, some scientist may discover a different answer to the same question? A deeper understanding? THAT is the same mindset I use when teaching Structured Word Inquiry. Sometimes I refer to it as Scientific Word Investigation, which more appropriately represents the scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking that is integral to this.
Unfortunately, we live in an educational world in which most people have stopped wondering about a word’s spelling and have just fully accepted that our language has no rhyme or reason to it. The teachers think they are teaching how our spelling system works, but if they are really really honest with themselves, they will admit that they wish they could explain the spelling of words like of, come, have, does, they, laugh, give, the, and countless others that end up on Word Walls in far too many classrooms. Every year a child is in school, they encounter more and more of these words that the adults only know to shrug their shoulders at, reinforcing the idea that English spelling is crazy. It is amazing to me that we all accept (and yes, I accepted it too for many years) the idea that there is no explanation to be had for words that can’t be sounded out.
But why is it like this? Why aren’t the explanations accessible to teachers? Why have teachers been told instead to use “rules” that don’t statistically work? Not only am I referring to the old “I before E” rule, but also to the “Two Vowels Go Walking” rule. Did you know that the “i before e” part of that rule is only accurate 75% of the time? Or that the “except after c” part of that rule is only accurate 25% of the time? Or that when looking at the top (meaning most common) 2,000 words, the “when two vowels go walking” rule was found to be accurate only 36% of the time?
Here are two more “rules” that deserve to be banned. The first says, “When a stressed syllable ends in e, the long sound of the vowel is used, and the final e is silent.” It works for words like bike, pope, and rake, and doesn’t work for give, love, and move. Teachers will find it surprising that it is accurate only 68% of the time. (Those teaching with SWI will recognize a different way to explain what is happening there – it has to do with the function of the single final non-syllabic <e>.) The second rule says, “When there is only one vowel in a stressed syllable and the vowel is followed by a consonant, the short vowel sound is used.” This works for fix, hop, and cat, but not for mind, wild, and fold. This one too works only 68% of the time.
I find it astounding that creative people have used their talents to come up with these “rules” instead of demanding to understand why words are spelled the way they are! Is it really that there is no explanation? Hardly. Are the explanations really so complicated that teachers and children alike can’t learn or understand them? Again, hardly.
In my opinion, the three biggest problems are these:
The inaccuracies have been embedded in the teaching for so long that as a society we have become complacent. There is a general acceptance of the notion that English spelling is crazy and can’t be understood. We see this all over the internet. People print what they perceive to be the ridiculousness of English spelling on coffee cups and T-shirts, and everybody laughs. People offer proof of the craziness of English spelling by asking why ‘bomb’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘tomb’ or ‘comb’. But who said they had to? You can blame that expectation on teachers who first taught those people to read. They may not have said it specifically, but after having students complete worksheet after worksheet with cat, rat, sat, pat, tip, sip, rip, lip, and cup, sup, pup, children get the message. Words that have the same letter string will always rhyme. And no one ever tells them differently. Children learn what you tell them, but also what you imply.
Teachers cannot teach what it is that they themselves do not understand. This lack of understanding is so pervasive because there are very few colleges that equip teachers with orthographic understanding. The textbooks offered to future teachers of reading are smattered with the inaccurate rules listed above. It would be difficult indeed to sort out what is worth using with children and what is not. And the curricular materials school districts spend millions on every year are no different. Many teachers can sense that the materials are not helping their students, but don’t know enough on their own to understand specifically what parts are utter nonsense. All the company has to do is slap the words “evidence based” or “research based” on the cover, and the school districts are all in. No one in any of those districts is reading any of that “evidence” or “research” and the company counts on that. The companies simply put a new spin on the old content and market it. School districts see where there are weaknesses in their ELA scores, and want to find something that will help their teachers improve scores and ultimately assist their students in becoming better at reading and writing. They believe the companies know what they are doing. But those administrators, like the teachers, like the teacher-prep colleges, and like the curricular material companies don’t understand English spelling themselves. The curriculum companies get as creative as they can in presenting spelling as a fun activity, but the bottom line is that one cannot teach what one doesn’t understand.
Many children will learn to read even without understanding how our spelling system works. This is what keeps so many spelling programs and curricular materials in business. It is also what keeps so many well meaning teachers and their students in the dark. If a child can read, then what does it matter whether or not they understand a word’s spelling? There will always be spellcheck, right? This idea that reading is primarily about sounds represented as letters may seem to be so obvious when a child is learning to read. But as they advance through the grades and encounter longer and more interesting words, their missing understanding about the morphology and the etymology that affects the phonology is the thing that becomes obvious. Why don’t they know that some letters are etymological or orthographic markers, or that a word’s etymology has much to do with the graphemes that spell it? Why weren’t they taught that English spelling is a system and that each year their understanding of that system could grow to accommodate any newly acquired words? Instead it is assumed that if they learn to read in kindergarten and 1st grade, they will naturally maintain that reading proficiency and spelling proficiency automatically as they move through grades, even when the materials used include inaccurate information such as I’ve mentioned above.
An example of such nonsense was recently brought to my attention by a teacher using Words Their Way. Her students were asked to spot the <un> in unplanned, unprepared, unlock and uncle. Really? The <un> in three of those words is obviously a prefix. Why would ‘uncle’ be included here? Are the students supposed to think it also has an <un> prefix, or is this just an indicator that children are not being taught that a word has structure (is comprised of morphemes)? Then, within that same week, the same teacher told me about the task in which her students were supposed to spot the <re> in rethink, replay, reheat and reptile. She wondered what she was missing. Was there an <re> prefix in ‘reptile’? Of course not. This teacher was not missing anything, but her students sure were. They were missing the framework by which to understand the words they were being asked to read and write. They were missing being taught the structure (morphology), history (etymology), and using both of those to understand the pronunciation (phonology) of words. They were missing feeling comfortable to ask questions about things that don’t make sense (whether or not the teacher has a ready answer). The fact that students no longer ask questions about spelling by grade 4 should be a big red flag to teachers everywhere. Sadly it isn’t. The students have learned that the teacher won’t be able to answer or guide them to resources that would help anyway. They have no expectation that English spelling will make sense. That is sad. It doesn’t need to be that way.
My students don’t deserve to be limited by the boundaries of my own understanding.
As teachers, we often feel more effective if we can anticipate the questions our students might ask and be ready with an answer. When we can successfully do that, we feel knowledgeable and think we are presenting ourselves as knowledgeable to our students. But there’s a catch to all that. In many instances teachers create a façade of having background in content knowledge. They have learned to rely on a teacher manual more than they rely on their own professional expertise. I don’t really want my students believing that I know everything or that I have all the answers. There are only a few students who would be brave enough to ask a question in that situation. Most fear looking “stupid” by asking a “stupid” question in the presence of someone who appears to be an expert, whether or not that is actually the case. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your students don’t ask more questions, perhaps you have set up this atmosphere without realizing it.
Here’s an example of a well meaning teacher who tried to limit her students to her own level of understanding. Each year I coordinate a Science Fair at our school. I’ve been doing it for years. (The simple reply to why I do it is that there are always those students who shine at the Science Fair in a way that is unexpected by adults/peers in their lives. Those adults could be adults at school who only see certain aspects of the student (math, reading, behavior issues, etc.), or they could be extended family or neighbors.) Anyway, one year there was a colleague who was guiding her own students through the process of getting ready for the Science Fair. She approached me and asked if we might change the scope of the Fair just a bit. Because she didn’t feel particularly knowledgeable about many areas in science, she was suggesting that we choose ten topics. The students could then pick one of those topics for their Science Fair project. In this way, she could anticipate questions and most likely be able to answer them as the students progressed through the weeks of experimenting. It would make participating in the Science Fair more comfortable for her.
As much as I understood why she was asking this, I couldn’t agree to it. It might eliminate the possibility of a student following a passion or interest. We all know what happens when a student is forced to pick a topic they are not interested in. That is not a way to encourage curiosity and creativity. When one of my students picks a topic I have no background in, I tell them how excited I am that we will both be learning about the topic. In fact, I find myself asking lots of questions when the student and I journal. (Since I am now the lone science teacher at our grade level, journaling is how I communicate individually with the 75 students I currently prepare for the Science Fair.) My own curiosity is aroused when a student picks a project or wonders about something no one else has picked or wondered about in the last 25 years of Science Fairs! Instead of limiting the students to my own background knowledge, I embrace stretching my background knowledge to include something new, and I model the enthusiasm that goes along with learning! It is very similar to how my students and I study the English spelling system.
My students and I find a sense of relief in the freedom that comes with not having to have the one right answer to every question. And yes, I included myself there. I never realized the “must know the right answer” burden I was carrying until I began investigating words. Since that day, I have moved forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students. I have experienced the joy of scholarship, and that has fueled a passion for desiring to know more. My students see me as someone who has a deeper understanding than they do, but also as someone who is eager to learn more. I make a big deal when a student asks a question I never thought to ask about a word or about a spelling. I make an even bigger deal when it is a great question that I don’t know the answer to. Just as in my Science Fair example, I am excited to know that the student and I will both learn something useful! My students are fully aware that I don’t know everything about English spelling. I am not setting up any false illusions about that. Yet we all understand that I am in the best position to guide the inquiries until they learn the process for themselves. And that is my goal – to teach my students how to use SWI on their own to deepen their understanding of the words they wonder about.
Here’s another example of a teacher whose students are limited in their learning by the teacher’s background knowledge. This is something I read on a blog the other day. The teacher is a kindergarten teacher who is teaching her students to read. She is enthusiastic and sincere in wanting her students to succeed. The task she describes is that of teaching sight words. First she says the word in question. Then she has them isolate the sounds they hear. Then she shows them the letters that represent those sounds by writing them on the board (orthographic mapping). She begins with the letters that represent a pronunciation that is predictable. Then she unveils the letters that represent a pronunciation in a way that isn’t expected.
“Sometimes I like to get a little dramatic as I unveil the word. -Especially for really irregular ones…my students died laughing when I revealed the spelling for “of” and showed the shock and craziness of the word with my expressions.”
If she herself had an explanation for the spelling of <of>, surely she would offer it. Since she doesn’t, she teaches her students that English spelling is often worthy of shocked looks and crazy expressions. When I asked why she embeds this rather unhelpful implication in her teaching of reading and writing, she defended it by saying that it made the sight words memorable and that the learning was fun this way.
Now I completely understand the idea of making learning fun and memorable. That is something I reflect on often in my own teaching. But I have learned to draw the line when what becomes memorable is a false premise for future learning. I understand that her goal for the school year is to have her students read and write. What she is doing will probably help her succeed in that. The method she is using is called Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI). I have no doubt that students being taught by this method leave kindergarten being able to do some reading and writing.
So if a goal as important as reading and writing is met, what’s the harm in her method? Well, let’s think about this. If she is teaching all “irregular” words in this way, she is sending the specific message to her students that many spellings are crazy and cannot be understood. And she is implying this over and over and over. By the end of the year, their overall impression of our spelling system is set. If the first grade teacher is also unequipped to explain words deemed “irregular”, then the students will receive a second year of subliminal messaging that “English spelling is unreliable and can’t be counted on to make sense.” What happens in second grade? More of the same? At what point are the students given the “straight skinny” about their spelling system? At what point do they meet a teacher who is willing to encourage their questions about why words are spelled the way they are and show them how to seek a deep understanding, knowing that what we understand is easier to remember? And if those students are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who can actually explain “irregular” spellings, along with supplying logical and predictable features of our spelling system, how on earth does that teacher have the time in one year to reset the attitude their previous teachers have nurtured? This is not a hypothetical situation. It is what I face every fall with each new fifth grade group.
Like I said before, I believe this kindergarten teacher’s desire to nurture successful readers is sincere. But in a really huge way, isn’t she limiting their understanding to her own? It is obvious that EBLI doesn’t offer any explanations for the spellings of sight words. If it did, this teacher would use them. Her heart is in the right place when it comes to doing right by her students. But how possible is it to be truthful right from the start with beginning readers when the teacher is missing so much herself? I often ponder this very idea because for years I didn’t question the idea of irregular words either. I just accepted that irregular words are words that can’t be explained and need to be memorized. This teacher is making that memorization fun, but in the end it is still just memorization. There is no understanding being offered. And I see a huge difference between “memorize this” and “understand this.”
Now let’s think for a moment about how a word ends up in the disgraceful “irregular” pile. It has to do with the alphabetic principle. We teach students that certain pronunciations will be spelled in certain ways using certain letters. When a word’s spelling deviates from that, it is labeled “irregular.” Some teachers (trying to make learning memorable) even shame the word by calling it “misbehaving.” There are even those who go so far as to put the word in “jail”. I love the fact that teachers are some of the most creative people I have ever met, but I also cringe when they use that creativity to disguise what it is that they themselves do not understand.
Unfortunately, too many teachers do not think young children are capable of understanding much about spelling. Their excuse is that we need to limit their cognitive load. Giving them a reason for a spelling, or planting any seeds about how fascinating and logical our spelling system actually is is out of the question in their minds. In my opinion, when adults decide what a child’s capacity for learning is (without having met the child), that child is instantly disadvantaged. If the only way to teach a child to read and write is to also teach the child that our spelling system is absurd and/or crazy, then I say find another way to teach reading and writing.
The number of classrooms in which children are being taught to read using SWI principles is growing every week. Age appropriate explanations are provided to children in regards to any word’s spelling. Right from the beginning, the children are taught to look for consistent spelling patterns, morphemes, and to recognize word families. They get lots of practice at recognizing grapheme/phoneme correspondences. They are encouraged to notice things and to ask questions. They enjoy making “word family” games for their classmates. And at the end of the school year, they are reading and they are writing. But most importantly, they are moving on to 1st grade expecting to read more, write more, and understand more about our language. No one has to back up the bus and convince them that spelling is in fact logical and fascinating. There is only a moving forward motion in their understanding! Each year they revisit important principles and ask the questions that deepen everyone’s understanding. They pull words out of context, investigate them at whatever level is appropriate, and notice other words that are related morphologically before putting the words back into context and discussing how understanding the word deepens its meaning within that context. Some of the very same things taught or practiced in an SWI classroom are also what is being taught with a method like EBLI. The major difference is the underlying belief that connects each year’s learning.
Imagine I had the choice of sending my young child to one of two classrooms. In both classrooms, there is a strong chance that my child would learn to read and write. The difference in the classrooms is this: In classroom #1, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is illogical and a lot of the times so crazy you’ll want to roll your eyes at it. They will memorize spellings without much understanding of why the word is spelled that way. They will be taught that some words have explainable spelling patterns and that many do not. They will practice sounding out words, and when a word can’t be sounded out, everyone will laugh at the word. In classroom #2, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is reliable and logical. They will immediately begin learning that words have structure and how understanding that fact will help them with building related words and spelling those related words. They will learn a “spell it out” strategy in which they identify bases and graphemes within those bases at the same time they are learning the word’s pronunciation and its spelling. They will learn that words have histories and that some words are very old. They will be encouraged to ask questions about what they notice about a word’s spelling. The teacher will help the students think through those questions.
I find it hard to believe people when they imply that it’s not possible to have the students leave kindergarten with the impression that there’s a reason for every spelling.
More and more teachers are proving the opposite of that every day. If you are interested in finding out more about what happens in those SWI kindergarten classrooms, I encourage you to participate in study groups with Rebecca Loveless and Pete Bowers. They have specifically worked with kindergarten teachers and their students.
It would be unrealistic to think we can teach without imposing (to some extent) the knowledge limits we each have. But isn’t it our responsibility to constantly reflect on how our own limits affect our students? I don’t like to think that I’ve invited my students into my yard (if we can think of my background knowledge as a yard with fences) and that they become prisoners there. Or that if they ask questions about what is beyond that fence, I would need to make up cutesy explanations to keep them from exploring what I myself am not comfortable exploring. I would rather think of this as me inviting them into my yard, and then when they ask questions about what’s on the other side of the fence, me going with them and modeling how to search for understanding. In the process I would be showing them how to keep expanding their own yard by continually moving those fences. When I am willing to either step outside my “fence” or to keep extending it, we all benefit as learners.
And here’s another thing that doesn’t often get considered. Never forget that students are as deep-down satisfied to prove truths about our English language to themselves as we are! When you spend year after year in classrooms in which the teacher is the expert, and you and your classmates are the buckets to be filled, this kind of investigating can be exhilarating! Students find it refreshing, really, to be given the tools and the opportunity to raise a question and then to prove or disprove it to themselves. My role becomes that of a guide, steering the questions the students have during an investigation back on them as often as possible, but also realizing when they have reached a point where they are truly stuck.
I might also add that I know of several adults with dyslexia who have shared with me their experiences of learning to read in school. They were frustrated much of the time because they were asked to remember bits and pieces without a context. Being told that our language was absurd or crazy made learning to read and write even harder because in effect they were being told it didn’t make sense. Being given a solid understanding of the interrelationship of morphology, etymology, and phonology, however, has turned a truly laborious task into a fascinating one. I’m not saying that their dyslexia has disappeared, but I am saying that they no longer feel as if they are staggering in the dark. Those adults ask lots of questions and think through lots of their own hypotheses thanks to finding Structured Word Inquiry. And every one of them is sharing their understanding with children. They, more than almost anyone else, really get what a difference understanding the spelling system can make.
Doing what is right for children isn’t easy when you are swimming against the educational current. When you have the guidelines of Structured Word Inquiry, when you can see for yourself what is true, and when you can provide evidence to any doubtful package-loving administrators, you do so, and then you just keep swimming. It’s what you do.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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!
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
You know how sometimes you look at a word you’ve written hundreds of times, and all of a sudden it looks totally strange? That happened to a colleague today. There was a math story problem that the whole class was working through. The problem had to do with a school bus – more than one to be exact. I don’t know what calculations were required to solve the problem, but I do know that writing the plural of bus is what stumped the teacher. At first she wrote ‘busses’ on the board. But then she couldn’t stop looking at it. “That doesn’t look right,” she thought out loud. “But yet it doesn’t look completely wrong either.”
The students (who tend to love correcting adults) shouted, “There’s only supposed to be one ‘s’ in the middle!”
As the teacher rewrote the word and changed it to ‘buses’, she agreed with the students. “Yes, that looks right.” But instead of turning her attention back to the math part of this, she paused and asked the following question. “But why is it spelled with only one ‘s’?
The responses she received were similar to the responses I get when I ask a question about spelling. The students have been taught that spelling is a reflection of pronunciation, so they don’t think of letters in a word as being there for any other reason. For example, when she asked why it was spelled with just one ‘s’, the students tried desperately to explain that there is a pronunciation difference between ‘busses’ and ‘buses’. Hmmmm.
Lucky for me, I had lunch with this teacher and she shared the discussion they had. My first reaction was that the suffixing convention tells us to double the final ‘s’ on the base and spell this plural as ‘busses.’ But we both acknowledged that we spell it as ‘buses.’ My next thought was that perhaps this was a case of American English spelling versus British English spelling. But I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t hide how delighted I was! When you least expect it, an opportunity to learn something you didn’t even know you didn’t know pops up! I love it! I couldn’t wait to see what I could find out. I went to my computer and searched “buses or busses?”
What I found was at Merriam-Webster. I read that until 1961, ‘bussed’ was the preferred spelling. So! Both spellings have been used! I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to cause the spelling to change. As often happens in moments of great discovery like these, the school bell rang. I had to go to the lunchroom to pick up students. I would have to read the rest of the information, when I returned. The group of students who had been in math with this teacher, would be in my room after lunch. A perfect opportunity to discover things and build understanding together!
Once the students and I were all settled, I wrote <hopping> on the board. I asked for the word sum. Someone offered, “h-o-p + ing.” Then the same person added, “but you double the <p>.”
“Why? Why does the <p> get doubled?”
“Because there’s no <e> like there is with ‘hope’.”
To illustrate for everyone what this student was saying, I wrote the word sum for ‘hoping’ on the board as well. We reviewed the suffixing convention that calls for the vowel suffix <ing> to replace the single final nonsyllabic <e>. Then I directed everyone’s attention back to the word sum <hop + ing>. “There is no single final nonsyllabic <e> on the base, and because there isn’t, we need to pay attention to what is final on this base.” As you can see, I underlined in blue the single final consonant on the base and then I underlined the single vowel in front of that consonant. I explained that the reason we double the <p> is because we are adding a vowel suffix to a base which ends in one final consonant and has one vowel in front of that consonant.
What happened next was kismet. A student in the back raised her hand and asked, “What about a word like buses?” Perfect! They were still thinking of the conversation in their math teacher’s room.
“How do you spell that?”
“It’s spelled b-u-s-es.”
“Interesting. Look back at ‘hopping’. Don’t we have the same situation here? Like we did with <hop>, we are adding a vowel suffix to <bus>, which has one final consonant and one vowel in front of that consonant. What do you think the word sum would be for that word?”
“It would be <bus + es>.”
“If we use the same suffixing convention we used with <hop>, how should we spell the plural of ‘bus’?”
“It should be b-u-s (double the s)-es.”
I wanted to make sure everyone understood that we begin by following the reliable suffixing conventions. When we find a word that doesn’t seem to be following those conventions, we are ready to ask why not. I wrote the two spellings on the board and we wrote analytic word sums. It was easy to write the one for ‘busses’ because we could explain the suffixing convention that would be applied. When we thought about a word sum for ‘buses’ it was as if the two morphemes coming together repelled as two magnets might. We needed to understand why the final <s> on the base did not get doubled. It was time to show them what I found out earlier.
A quick look at Etymonline revealed that the word ‘bus’ is really not all that old. It was first attested in 1832. It was an abbreviated form of ‘omnibus’ which was attested only three years earlier than that. An omnibus was a four wheeled vehicle that had seats for passengers. That’s not so different from what we think of as a bus today. It was a vehicle for all as the Latin <omni> “all” suggests. Below is a picture of an early horse drawn omnibus.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=553158
According to Merriam-Webster, by the 193o’s this word’s popularity started to bump heads so to speak with the already existing word ‘buss.’ Never heard of it? Me neither. It took me quite by surprise! It is much older than ‘bus.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘buss’ was first attested in 1567! As a noun, a buss is a loud or vigorous kiss. It is thought to be based on the sound that a loud or vigorous kiss might make!
As I was reading a 1996 use of this word in the OED, I realized what the problem would be for these two words.
“1996 Entertainm. Weekly 5 Apr. 96 Even after Maddie and David consummated the 1985–86 season with a passionate buss in a parking garage, viewers were not satisfied.”
In the above sentence, the singular form of buss is used, but what if more than one kiss was given in that parking garage? The season would have been consummated with passionate busses in a parking garage! Someone reading this would have to stop to wonder if these were passionate kisses or passionate vehicles! It made me laugh thinking about how confusing this could be.
I altered the quote above so that it was more appropriate for my students. I said, “Imagine how confusing it would be if I said that I saw someone give someone else two busses in the parking garage.” It could mean someone received two kisses, or it could mean they received two vehicles!
We wrote the word sum for ‘busses’ and compared it to that of ‘kisses.’ We noted that <es> was the suffix used and why that made sense. We laughed when thinking of what a single <s> suffix would look like when joined to this base or even how it would be pronounced.
Someone asked if perhaps the word ‘buss’ was pronounced differently than ‘bus.’ What a great question! It was easy enough to find at the OED. I wrote the IPA below it in the word sum. Then I looked up ‘bus’ in the OED and found the identical IPA representation. Cool.
So in the end, we realized that when seeing the word <busses>, a person wouldn’t know whether this was <bus (s) +es –> busses> or if it was <buss + es –> busses>. In the end the plural forms of each look the same even if the bases aren’t the same. Interesting stuff! This takes me back to the Merriam-Webster article that stated that up until 1961, the preferred plural of ‘bus’ in their dictionary was ‘busses.’ After that the preferred spelling became ‘buses’ so these two words would no longer be confused.
If your students are like mine, they will enjoy the humor in the following.
Even if you love your bus, it may look weird for you to buss your bus.
You can give me a hug, but please no busses.
No busses on the bus, unless it’s a buss from your parent.
Not too long ago I asked my students what they do when they are unsure of how to spell a word. I wanted to know how many strategies they had been taught that might help them. Here is what they told me.
Sound it out.
Make up a rhyme or song to help remember how to spell words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
Ask someone to tell you how to spell the word.
Spell it some kind of way and then don’t use it after that.
If someone suggests that you look in a dictionary, groan loudly because you know you will spend a lot of time at the dictionary and never find the word anyway because you don’t know how to spell it.
We haven’t equipped them very well, have we? I was recently having a discussion with someone who teaches children who are just beginning to learn to read. She told me that “sound it out” is a strategy for reading, not for spelling. Hmmm. When are the children ever told that? When are the people who teach the children ever told that? What are children offered instead? If it is recognized by both adults and children that “sound it out” isn’t reliable, what else are we teaching in its place?
This is an important question to ask. I need to know how well equipped they are for what I will be asking them to do all year — which is to write with minimal spelling errors. Those students with remarkable memories smile, feeling quite confident that they are pretty good at spelling. Those who can’t seem to remember the order of the letters in a word (even when they’ve written and rewritten the word twenty times), feel the opposite. They feel frustrated and dumb. It’s not uncommon to find out that those students started hating writing long before now – especially if they can’t read their own writing! I have a student currently who hates to go back and fix up his spelling so much that he insists on getting the right spelling for each word as he writes each sentence. As you can imagine, his ideas don’t flow very well in his writing. His mind is on spelling more than it is on the ideas he is trying to express. He has entered 5th grade absolutely hating writing because of spelling.
It pleases me to no end that I can offer my students real help. This is the year that they will learn a strategy that will actually help them understand spelling. And when they understand a spelling, there is a larger likelihood that they will remember the spelling of the word. They will learn how to spell words and not remember working at it to do so! Sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it? Listen to these two students.
The first student clearly expresses that learning to spell a word and then having to attach meaning to it is completely different than learning to spell a word based on that word’s structure and the denotation of its base(s). Her second grade memories illustrate the two things as separate activities. By studying orthography and noting the sense and meaning that is inherent in the base(s), she understands the spelling of the word AND its meaning, realizing that the meaning is represented in the spelling. Learning the word’s structure and meaning, and then noting the connections of the word’s base(s) to other words that share that base, is a revelation to anyone who has wondered about the English spelling system. It is as powerful for adults in remembering a word’s spelling and meaning as it is for children.
The second student in the video clearly expresses how effortless remembering the spelling of a word can feel. Notice that I did not say “memorizing a spelling.” That is what students do prior to coming to my classroom. It happens when teachers don’t have an understanding themselves, yet need the students to spell words accurately. I’m pretty sure that a large number of you (I’m including myself in that group) grew up memorizing spelling without any further understanding of that spelling. You can’t imagine what more there is to learn until you actually engage in investigating a word for yourself. The second student in this video has found this type of looking at words to be so helpful! As she says at the end, she learned how to spell the words she investigated and she didn’t even know she was! Every year my students tell me they know they are better at spelling than they were at the beginning of the year. If they feel empowered, isn’t that what it’s all about?
This next video features a student who has never struggled with memorizing the spelling of words. So how does studying orthography benefit her?
Even when our goal of having students know the spelling and meaning of a word is met, there is much we have left out! Here is a student that can easily memorize both the spelling and meaning of words she encounters. But even she recognizes that by studying orthography she is engaging in the learning in a way that she has not been asked to do before. “Here’s a list of words. Memorize them and then write out definitions.” Sound familiar?
I find that students are engaged in the word inquiries we conduct because they are leading the investigations. They are not being asked to regurgitate information that I collected for them about words. They are not matching definitions I wrote to words that I want them to know. They are creating hypotheses about a word’s structure. Then they are using resources (authentic, reliable, and not necessarily made for kids) to understand the information for themselves. Yes, I need to guide them in their use of those resources at first. But it doesn’t take long before they are independently finding out the story and word sum of a word. And in the course of doing so, they are understanding and learning its spelling.
Recently I saw a post from Haggard’s Hawk . (Click on the name to visit the Home Page. Haggard’s Hawk posts things on Facebook, Instagram, blog, and Twitter. I saw this on Twitter.) I find Haggard’s Hawk to be a fascinating source of word etymology. Paul Anthony Jones has written eight books that you can also check out at the link I have provided. So here is a screen shot of the post I saw:
My point in sharing this post is that until I looked at the etymology, I thought of the words <bereavement>, <bereaved>, and <bereft> as meaning someone is feeling sad because a loved one died. Adding the sense of “plunder” and “rob” amplifies (in a way) what bereavement means. My mother passed away several years ago now. Describing my bereavement as the feeling one has when being robbed of something is so much more accurate than describing what I was feeling as “sad.” Sad is used generically for hundreds of situations that happen every day. Being robbed of someone has that sense of unexpectedness and outrage (in a way). It truly feels as if I was robbed of having my mother in my life. My life has not been destroyed because of she died, but I do feel a sense of my life having been plundered by it. I’ve had to try to put things back that were set askew. But something big will always be missing. And there’s that sense of having experienced being robbed.
Do you see how looking specifically at a word’s base element and its denotation can bring depth to a word? Having spent seven years learning about words with students, I am only more excited each and every day. I will never know the story of every word, but I will always be delighted to know one more. In the classroom, it is like the student in the video says, “Mrs. Steven learns it along with us. She just doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s really fun.”
So let’s get to the nitty gritty of this post. I teach my students to identify the structure of a word. I teach them that words are made up of a string of morphemes. Each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the entire word. The morpheme that carries the main sense and meaning of the word is the base element. A word that has more than one base element is a compound word. Most people understand this. The part they might not understand is that not all bases are free bases. What I mean by that is that not all bases can be words on their own. A base like <hope> is a free base because it is a recognizable word on its own. We could add a suffix, but we don’t have to in order for it to be a word. A base like <fer>, however, is a bound base. We never see it as a word on its own. We see it when it is paired up with affixes. You’ll no doubt recognize it in <offer>, <different>, and <conifer>. It has a denotation of “carry.” If I was guiding an investigation of <fer>, I would definitely encourage my students to find related words as I have done here. Then I would ask them to tell me how that sense of “carry” is there in the word. Sometimes it is a strong sense in the modern word, and sometimes it is faint. But it is always there. Check out this student’s enjoyment of learning about these connections.
This is another example of a student who didn’t necessarily struggle with memorizing spelling words. Yet here she is, excited to really understand that words have a structure and a history, and that by using the sense and meaning denoted in the base along with the sense that affixes contribute, she can understand the meaning represented in the word’s spelling! This is her “Eureka” moment and she looks forward to making the same comparisons and connections with each word she investigates!
In order to strengthen each student’s ability to create a logical hypothesis, we do the following. I write a word on the board and ask the students to think about it for a minute. Then I ask for volunteers to write a word sum hypothesis on the board beneath it. Here is an example:
As each hypothesis is added to the list, I will point out certain things we are seeing. With these three hypotheses, I noticed that all three have identified <ex-> as a prefix. I will now ask students to brainstorm other words that seem to have an <ex-> prefix. When students have collectively thought of three or more, then we decide that identifying <ex-> as a prefix is a logical idea seeing as we know it to be a prefix in other words.
Next I would point to what has been identified as suffixes. In two of the words <ion> has been suggested and in one word <sion> has been suggested. Now I ask the students what they think of those two suggestions. Can they think of other words that have either an <ion> or <sion> suffix? Since we recently took part in an activity in which students were focused on finding certain suffixes, a few of the students recognized that <-ion> is a suffix in <adoption> and in <action>. We thought of <expression>, but realized that even here, the suffix would have to be <ion> since the <s> before the <ion> in that word is part of the stem <express>.
That left us to consider whether the first or second hypothesis was more likely based on what we knew. No one was familiar with <pl> or <os> as morphemes on their own, but that doesn’t mean that neither of them is or isn’t a morpheme. Next we brainstormed words related to <explosion>. The students thought of:
Our related words list gave us evidence that the <ex> was a prefix because we could see that it could be replaced with an <im> prefix. We also saw the evidence that <ion> was a suffix because it could be replaced with <ive>. We were pretty sure that the base in this word was <plose>. A look at Etymonline revealed that this word’s furthest back relative was <plodere>. When I see that final ‘ere‘ on a Latin ancestor, I recognize that this was a Latin verb and the ‘ere‘ was an infinitive suffix. When removed, it reveals the stem that came into modern English as a base element. You have probably already noticed, however, that when we remove the ‘ere‘ we are left with <plode> and not <plose>. These are alternant spellings of the same Latin verb meaning “drive out with clapping.” You see, this verb was originally used in the theater. I bet you can imagine an audience exploding with applause. By the way, <applause> and <applaud> are related to these. They continued to be used in a theater sense, and <explosion> and <explode> began to be used in other situations as well.
The evidence we gathered supported the word sum <ex + plose + ion>.
Giving the students opportunities to hypothesize word sums encourages them think about many of the words they encounter in and out of school! It is not uncommon to hear from either students or parents about word conversations that took place in the car or at the dinner table! Here’s another example from last week. I put the word <constantly> on the board. Here are the word sum hypotheses the students created:
Because we had done this activity several times before, I did not begin by sharing what I noticed about these hypotheses. Instead I asked the students what they noticed about the three word sum hypotheses. “What do you see that you agree is a logical hypothesis for either an entire word sum or part of a word sum.” The first person noticed that all three hypotheses suggested that <ly> was a suffix. Other students easily thought of words with an <ly> suffix (lonely, quickly, happily). It may have helped that we looked at a list of words with <ly> suffixes the day before. And that may be why I chose a word with that suffix for today. A little reinforcing is always a good thing!
Then someone noticed that two of the hypotheses had <con> as prefixes. So we did some brainstorming again and thought of concert, construction, contract, concussion and congress. The students weren’t sure whether <con> really was a prefix in concert and congress, but they could think of replacing the <con> with <de> in <construction> (<destruction>), removing the <con> and adding an <or> suffix to <contract> (<tractor>), and replacing the <con> with <per> in <concussion> (<percussion>).
I specifically asked what everyone thought about the second word sum – the one that read <constant + ly>. I wanted to point out that when you absolutely cannot point to anything you recognize as a possible morpheme, then this would be a good choice. It is far better to “under-analyze” than to “over-analyze” without evidence. When you first start this activity with your students, you may notice that they assume that every two letters is a morpheme. Sometimes it is obvious to me that they are breaking the word into syllables, but sometimes it’s not even that. They just have no idea what’s what yet. They do not recognize enough affixes or bases. That is why I choose words that reinforce affixes we’ve already noticed. That is also why I show them how to think logically as they are thinking through the hypothesis they intend to propose.
The last two things to consider then are the possibility of a <stant> base or an <st> base and an <ant> suffix. My first question to the class was, “Can you think of any words with an <ant> suffix? Can we provide evidence that it might be a suffix?” After some thinking time someone offered up <pleasant>. Then the words <migrant> and <pollutant> were named. That was enough evidence that the <ant> might be a suffix. But then that left an <st> base. Is there such a thing? I thought back to the moment when the student wrote this particular hypothesis on the board. Another student kind of sniggered from his seat as if suggesting an <st> base was going too far. It does sound improbable, doesn’t it? We were now at the point when it was time to go to a resource. I called up Etymonline and shared it on the Smartboard with everyone. I searched for <constantly>. This is what came up:
The students were so perplexed. “What? Why does sourball come up?” I told them to read what they were looking at and then to raise their hand when they had an idea why this word came up in the search. It didn’t take long at all before they saw the word <constantly> in the entry for sourball. I then told them how glad I was that this happened. It just shows us that when we list a word in the search bar, the program looks for that word in all the places it exists on the site!
My next question was what to do next? How should I alter what I have in the search bar so we can keep going with our investigation? As if in harmony, most all of the students responded with, “Take off the <ly> suffix.”
As we read through the entry together, I pointed out that this word was first attested in the late 14th century. It is obviously a very old word. Then I went on to say that at that time this word was used to mean “steadfast, resolute; patient, unshakable; fixed or firm in mind.” I paused to think out loud and to model what I hope they do when they read during research. “Is that how we still use this word? What is something that we might describe as constant?” After a moment of thought someone said that a noise could be described as constant. So we talked about a dog who is constantly barking or an alarm that is constantly going off earlier than it should. Then we thought of the 14th century sense and meaning of this word – unshakable, fixed. We knew that we still use this word in the same way. It was time to keep reading.
Next we noticed that this word was either from Old French and had the same spelling then as we have today, or it was from Latin constantem with a sense and meaning of “standing firm, stable, steadfast, faithful.” As I kept reading, I saw the words “assimilated form” and pointed that out. “Look here! The word is from the assimilated form of com meaning ‘with, together.’ Then it says, ‘see con-‘. What do you suppose that is evidence of?”
Again they all responded, “A <con-> prefix!”
“Now keep reading. Do you notice how this is from an assimilated form of com + stare “to stand?” Do you see that? Well, let me tell you about that Latin verb. I happen to know it is a Latin verb because I recognize the infinitive suffix on it. You know how we have certain suffixes that we recognize as suffixes we use with verbs? You know, like <ing> sometimes and <s> sometimes? Well in Latin, one of the suffixes found on the verb in its infinitive form is an ‘-are.’ When we remove that suffix from this Latin verb, we see the Latin stem that came into Modern English and is now a base element.”
I wrote the Latin verb stare on the board and boxed out the infinitive suffix so the students could see what I was doing. In this way they could also see what would be left without the Latin suffix.
There was a bit of excitement mixed in with a bit of “I don’t believe it” when they realized that the Modern English base is indeed <st> and has a denotation of “stand!” The next step, of course, was to put together what we knew the base meant along with the sense carried by the prefix. We had a literal sense of “stand together.” Looking back at the way <constant> has been used in the past, several students right away spotted the words “standing firm” and “fixed.” Again we could relate these senses to how we use the word <constant>.
It was time to draw everyone’s attention back to our three hypotheses. It is always important to point out that there aren’t any right or wrong answers on the board. There are only hypotheses that can be supported by evidence and hypotheses that can’t. Nurturing that understanding builds an atmosphere in the classroom that is free of judgement. That is huge! In this case, there are two that we can support with evidence, and one that we can’t support with evidence. But even the one we can’t support with evidence had some logical and evidence-supported morphemes in it!
So as we were wrapping up this activity, a student in the back row raised her hand and asked, “What about pros and cons? Is the <con> in this same prefix, or is it a clip of something?”
The smile on my face was immediate! What a thought provoking question! I paused for a bit before saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like some time to think about this. Maybe others in here feel the same way. Would you please write your question over on the Wonder Wall? We’ll look at this tomorrow. In the meantime we can all have some time to think about it.”
When this group of students came in the next day, I started by asking how many had given this some thought. At least eight hands went up. I was impressed. One student explained that she had laid in bed the night before trying to think of what <pro> and <con> might be a clip of. Another student wondered if <pro> was a clip of proactive and that maybe <con> was a clip of conflict. Interesting. Someone else piped up and offered that <pro> might be a clip of proficient.
At this point, I said, “Let’s back it up a second and make sure we have a sense of what we mean when we use this phrase. Is there another phrase that is sometimes used in place of this one?” Students replied with:
“How about advantages and disadvantages?”
“Or pluses and minuses?”
Next we thought of a scenario in which we might make a list of pros and cons. Examples from our discussion included deciding whether or not to get a new pet and convincing parents to start/increase an allowance. Now I felt like we were ready to see what Etymonline had to say. We began by looking up <con>.
Immediately it was agreed that this fit our search. The first words “negation; in the negative; the arguments” were exactly what we thought of when we thought of the “cons” of a proposal. As we continued to read, we were surprised to see “mainly in pro and con.” I paused to think aloud again. “So this use of <con> to mean something negative is mainly used in the phrase pro and con. Interesting! And look! It’s been around since the 1570’s! Isn’t it surprising that this phrase is that old?” But little did we know that the most interesting part was yet to come. The very next words told us that <con> was indeed a clip. It was a clip of contra “against.”
Before we used the link to find out more about <contra>, we finished reading the entry and saw the direction to compare <con> with <pro>. We decided we would come back and do that after we looked at <contra>.
What we found at the entry for <contra> was that this is a free base with a denotation of “against; on the opposite side.” What really caught my eye was the list of related words. I chose three to talk about, thinking that those three might be familiar to my students. The first was <contradict>. I explained that the bound base was <dict> “say.” The example I used was, “If I were to say that today was Friday and someone were to say it was Thursday, I might tell them not to contradict me.”
The second word was <controversy>. To illustrate this, I brought up the current issue of climate change. I told them that this is a controversial issue because some people believe it is a problem and some people have the opposite view. They do not believe it is a problem. Since both sides are feeling strongly, this becomes a controversial issue.
The last word we spoke about was <contrast>. A student shared that when we point out contrasts we are pointing out differences. Great! But here was an opportunity I was not going to miss. “Does anyone have a hypothesis about what the word sum for <contrast> might be? Think about the entry we are looking at.
A student raised his hand with movements of urgency. “<contra + st>!” Eyes lit up everywhere.
I suggested we look at the entry for <contrast> to see if we could support this hypothesis with evidence. Sure enough! This word is from Latin contra “against” and Latin stare “stand.” How cool that we found another word with an <st> base already! It was great to be able to reinforce how I knew that the base was <st>.
It was time now to go find out about <pro>. I took them back to the Etymonline entry for <con>. I wanted to point out something. Right behind the link to “Compare pro,” there was a set of parentheses with (n.2). I asked, “What do you supposed that means?” The silence that followed made me glad I had asked. It is opportunities like these where I can make their individual visits to Etymonline more productive. I asked if anyone ever noticed that sometimes a word is listed twice in a dictionary because it has two different meanings. Many had. That was enough to trigger some understanding that (n.2) meant that <pro> is a noun and we would be looking for the second entry.
Even with pointing out that we would be looking for the second entry, several students shouted out that <pro> was a clip of <professional>. So we read together the second entry and realized that “a consideration or argument in favor” is the sense we use in the phrase pros and cons. Further in the entry we found corroboration that pro and con is short for pro and contra “for and against.” We even noted the Latin spelling (pro et contra).
I ended our discussion by sincerely thanking the student who had brought the phrase pros and cons to our attention. What a delight to find out this information about it! At first we wondered if <pro> was a clip of either proactive or proficient, but we found out that it wasn’t a clip at all. Instead, <con> was a clip of <contra>. We now understand <pro> to mean an argument in favor of something and <con> to mean an argument against something. And yes, some may have had a sense of that before we started, but I do believe there is a difference between knowing something superficially and knowing something in a way that it didn’t before.
Within 24 hours of this discussion, three more word quandaries appeared on our Wonder Wall:
– Is influence related to influenza?
-Why is there a <u> in some spellings of <color>?
-What does “hemmed and hawed” mean?
Looks like I won’t ever have to wonder what we should talk about next! These students are in orthographic orbit!