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 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!
I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time. My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings. But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time. There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals. There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers. Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book. (I recently read this book to my granddaughter. It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)
There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics! One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.
Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.
What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.” The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.” See what I mean? How on earth can a letter misbehave? It’s an inanimate object! And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either. (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it. Then I wait. I wait for the thing that will never happen. The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name. The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter. See? A letter will never misbehave either.)
A letter WILL however, represent something. If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share. We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know! But there is! And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that! Except …
The authors are painfully unaware of it. The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous. The information they share about each word is interesting. Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works. We don’t need more of that. What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better. To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way. To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.
Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it. It IS unexpected, isn’t it? What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.” What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced. After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter. In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced. I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark. But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.
The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation. I think that is the beauty of this book. It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.
As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait. Our minds raced ahead trying to guess. Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book. The students were ahead of me with that thought.
“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>? I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book? I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”
And then they were off!
P is for Pterodactyl
Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>. Let’s start with what Sam presented. He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>. He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.” The <o> is a connecting vowel. All parts of this word are from Greek.
He also wrote the word in Greek with my help. I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.
Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). This is the first year my students have had access to the OED. They were able to find many related words by using this resource. The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used. If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon. Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives! This poster was created by Sam. What I love about it is the key at the bottom. Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”
For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.) He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.” Here is a picture. The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo. I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!
Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>. (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon. The second part in this compound word is <anodon>. It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk henteeth.com
Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!
Now let’s look at Jude’s work.
Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word. He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>. Find it HERE. In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology. Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.
After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix. Here is a larger version of it.
You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word. I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix. The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel. In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.” You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings. An example would be a flea.
Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.” The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.” It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images
As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t. This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry. There is no expected “complete” answer. There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task. An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.
One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced. Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first. On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true. The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced. Interesting observation, am I right?
So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?
M is for Mnemonic
Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>. He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.
He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.” He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.” That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different. Some had <mnes>.
He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>. He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.” You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster. I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more. Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.
Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>. This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.” In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.
The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced. But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced. It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!
P is for Pneumonia
Alright, you got me. There weren’t two “P is for …” pages. But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>. The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>. She was excited!
As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them. She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs. It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.
When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.” She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air. She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works. I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class. She chose this one. It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.
Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>. I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould. Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word. The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.” The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.” The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.” But what does the word mean? How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?
Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Cally read that this word is pretty rare. It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old. I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning. You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed. So did it die before or after birth? While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.
When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her. Together we googled this word. Here is the first entry that popped up. There were several others on the same page written in French as well. As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.
“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded. “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”
So we looked at the OED. The entry there listed this word as French. It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.” My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank. We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank. Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper. But then I noticed something else.
“Cally. Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition. Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”
I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>. This is what we found:
“Oh! These two spellings are the same suffix! Cool!”
“Yes. Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other. In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”
Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment. Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>. There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words. There is a meaning difference as well. They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>. In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word. The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>. But then there is <communique>. We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>. It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly. In yet other word families they may not be at all. Hmmmm. This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!
One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one. It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>! After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history. At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia. At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.
P is for Psychic Pterodactyl
I know, I know. This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word. But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity. I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced. Look at what she found!
Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling. One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.” In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found. You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word. That’s not very helpful. All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms. The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.
For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>. The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>. This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person. A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.” A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.” What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!
Another on that list is <psychosis>. I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar. We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis. Notice anything about all of those? Yup. They all have something to do with a medical condition. That is what the <-osis> brings to the word. Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).
The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well. The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young. Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic. Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads. The colors were always bright. I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times. But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”). In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.
Love Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use
Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.” The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>. In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced. In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.” Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>. The pronunciation was /kh/. You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.
The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.” She did a much better job of defining the words on this list. The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>. This is a compound word. The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>. The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.” I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.” This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)
One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>. What I like about this word is that it is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel! What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.” If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.” This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems. This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.
**** Final Thoughts
I could continue. Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.” This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful. Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed. This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four. The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.
Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:
Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not. All have delightful tales to tell. I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way. It is not the Russian spelling. Why not? Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>. Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s? And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>? Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding? Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling. I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.
So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules. I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving. I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway? Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound? This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth! This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!
When a colleague forwarded a notice back in January about a podcast contest that NPR was hosting, I was immediately interested. It sounded like something my students and I would enjoy doing. The fact that I had never created a podcast before didn’t deter me. Back when I was doing my own student teaching, I had my students create radio shows. Wouldn’t this be similar?
The idea of having the students prepare a script that didn’t rely on visuals was appealing. They would have to make sure they spoke in ways that complemented what they were saying. They would have to think about the words they were using and not just assume that the orthography terms they use every day would be familiar to their listener. They would have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse so that they sounded more like they were speaking than reading. And in my mind, I knew they would need to write a script that was longer than anything they’ve written to date! What a lovely marriage of research, writing, revision, reading, speaking, and collaboration this could be!
NPR supplied a well-thought-out plan for guiding educators and students through this process, so I decided to present this idea to my students. Since I teach three groups of 22 students each, I wondered how many of the students would be interested. I needn’t have wondered. It turns out they were ALL interested! Okay! We were in!
We began by listening to some of the podcasts recommended by NPR. We listened to one a day for several days, pausing to discuss the kinds of information we felt was important to have been included, the overall feel of the podcast, the seriousness of the overall information sharing, even when humor was involved, and the sound effects. Each day, the excitement grew in regards to writing their own. Many were regular podcast listeners and were especially enthusiastic. The majority of students, though, had never listened to a podcast before this. But they too became enthused as they listened to the well-put-together podcasts each day.
The first thing we had to do was think of our topic. For me, that was obvious. The students would be randomly placed in groups and would each investigate a word of the group’s choosing. They loved that idea! The students had investigated words on their own several times and were familiar with the resources to use. This idea gave them a level of comfort as they began. Putting them in groups of 4-5, meant there were five groups in each class. That meant we would be creating a series that included 15 podcasts. The students wouldn’t just be looking at the word’s etymology or root, they would also be looking at how the word’s use or spelling might have changed over time. It would also be important to include current information about this word’s meaning and its use. In other words, they would be providing a broad look at a single word. This was going to require a lot of research before script writing could even begin!
The students took a few days to think about what word they would choose. Some were inspired by what they had been learning about during their study of the Civil Rights Movement (segregation, peace). Others brainstormed a list and then looked up information on each to see which sounded more interesting to them. One group paged through a copy of John Ayto’s book, A Dictionary of Word Origins, and found their word (eureka). As soon as each group had decided, they let me know and then started learning as much as they could. As they found out things, they shared the information with the group.
Several days in, each group started writing a script. According to the NPR guidelines, the podcasts were to be a minimum of 2 minutes long with a maximum length of 12 minutes. These scripts were no doubt the longest scripts any of these students have been a part of writing! When they would tell me they were finished, I would ask them if they timed themselves practicing their podcast. When they did, they would realize their podcast was too short. So then the real digging began. The search for related words. The search for changes in spelling over time or changes in meaning over time. The search for the word to be used in different ways depending on a context. The search for how the word is used today and perhaps which people have become associated with the word.
And with this renewed digging, this need to find more, came some surprising facts which were surprisingly satisfying! I could feel the level of engagement increase among the students. They would enter my room each day with the same question ready for me, “Are we going to work on our podcasts?” After a quick progress check (making sure each person knew their role and each group was focused), they grabbed their Chromebooks, found a table or grouped desks together and got to work.
Every once in a while I would hear an extended patch of laughter coming from one or another group. When I went over to check it out, it was always related to their script or the misreading of it or some information they found that seemed funny. They were still engaged, just enjoying the team work atmosphere and the shared experience of creating something worth creating!
A few groups included interviews. The group that was looking at “segregation” interviewed their social studies teacher. The group that was looking at “frog” interviewed me. (My fondness for all things “frog” is obvious to those who enter my room!) And the group that was looking at “lexical” interviewed the creator of The Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug Harper. That interview was something we all benefited from. It was a Zoom (online) interview and the whole class was able to meet and listen to Mr. Harper!
After three weeks or so (I kept reassuring them that the research and writing should be the most time consuming of any part of this project) the first of the groups finished, and said they were ready to record. It was time to start the next phase of this project.
According to the guide at NPR, I could have recorded these audio files on my iphone, but with 15 groups, I could imagine running into problems with space on my phone. So I purchased a recorder. I’m so glad I did! I would get it set up for the students and they took it from there. Most all of the groups recorded more than once. That was fine. We were all getting used to the equipment, being loud enough, being slow enough, and having enough expression in our voices. We turned a small storage room into our “recording studio.” You can see my recorder on the inverted tin can in the center. The students read their scripts from their Chromebooks so they wouldn’t have to worry about the added sound of papers shuffling.
Next we went down to the computer lab and uploaded the audio file into Audacity which is a free software for editing audio files. The students had never used Audacity before, and neither had I. So the students learned to use the HELP tab. When they couldn’t find their answer there, they tried looking for a video at Youtube that would walk them through editing at Audacity. Sure enough! They not only found answers, but could watch someone do what they needed to do. They became pretty confident at editing and offered help to other groups who became stuck. So not only was I seeing cooperation within the groups, I was seeing cooperation between the groups! This experience just kept getting better and better!
The trickiest part of this editing was that at some point we had five groups in the lab all trying to listen and edit their podcast. If headphones were used, that meant that only one person would be making decisions, so the groups usually used headphones only for listening to the instructional videos at Youtube.
But one by one, the groups finished the editing and I saved the file to a flash drive. Then it was back to the classroom for the group. Once they finished their podcast, I asked them to present their same script as a video. They now had the opportunity to add pictures, images, and matrices to enhance their information. This seemed like another way to share their word investigations in a slightly different platform!
As the groups finished, I uploaded each podcast to SoundCloud. From there, NPR will be able to access them as part of their judging. Then I filled out the entry form for each group. They will be judged in the 5th-8th grade category. Will one of these podcasts win? Who knows. All I know is that in the hearts and minds of my students, they have already won. When I hear students say, “I am really proud of our group! I’m proud of me!” then I know that this learning experience has been rich and worthwhile. We all know that learning isn’t just about learning the content. And this experience was no different. These students had to persevere when the editing got confusing or they just couldn’t figure something out. They had to ask for help when needed because this project had a deadline and there wasn’t time to waste. They had to use patience when one member stumbled over speaking parts or pronunciation of words. (They were so helpful and kind to one another and never minded practicing just one more time before recording.) They had to be willing to go back and re-record if the group felt that was the best option. You see, with every group I saw a serious goal of turning in the best version of their podcast that they could. I was constantly proud of their attitude, work ethic, and respect for members in their groups. Were there moments of chaos and discord? Absolutely! But all in all, the students learned to redirect their attention, be accountable for their contribution to the group, compromise with members in their group, and compliment each other for little things done well!
In other videos my students have created, I have been the script writer. This time the students can proudly say they did every facet of this project themselves. Mind you, if I noticed that something was incorrect or mispronounced, I spoke up and the students willingly amended their podcast. But I’m sure I missed a few things as well. Just today I was listening to the episode about “Eureka!” About three fourths of the way through, I realized that the name of the city they were mispronouncing was Syracuse! Made me chuckle. Their mispronunciation made me think at first that it was a city I didn’t know! It is still one of my favorite podcasts in this series. Okay, so in truth I have around 15 favorites in this series!
Here is a link to my SoundCloud channel. I hope you will listen to a few of these podcasts. If you are wondering where to start, you might enjoy “Lexical” which has the interview with Doug Harper. Some other great ones are “Hippopotamus,” “Not so Nice,” “Kerfuffle,” “Eureka,” and, well, all of them! You can either listen here by clicking on the arrow in the top left corner, (in which case the podcasts will play in the order they are listed) or you can click on my name and it will take you to my page on SoundCloud where you can see the full name of each episode and choose the one you’d like to listen to. You can also scroll through the list below my image and choose one (although the full name of each episode isn’t always showing.)
If you prefer the video versions, there are about four finished so far. I am busy editing more and will be adding them to my Youtube channel in the next two weeks. Here is a link to my Youtube channel: