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

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

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

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

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

    Suggestions for At-Home Orthographic Studies

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

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

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

*** Doubling the final consonant on the base:

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Possible topics in this situation might be:

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

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

 

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

 

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

Abstract Nouns – So Inspirational!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Positivity

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.

~~Jack

 

 Anger

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.

~~David

 

Embarrassment

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.

~~Adalina

 

Darkness

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.

~~Kailyn

 

Anger

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

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

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

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

Anger, you have no place inside me.
Leave.

~~Addison

 

Shadow

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.

~~Ari

 

Future

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.

~~Sina

 

AIR

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.

~~Ali

 

Creativity

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.

~~Colin

 

Lies

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

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

Why do you exist?

~~Sofia

 

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 Symphony of Suffixes

When I sat down to lunch with my grade level team today, I was bubbling over with satisfaction after a rich and wonderful discussion that had just taken place in my room.  I couldn’t help myself.  I had to share what had just happened.  I was too excited.

As I sometimes do, I wrote a word on the board and was asking the students to take a minute to think of what the word sum might be.  I was looking for a hypothesis.  From there we would see where the conversation went.

The word I began with today was <scientist>.

I made sure I gave time for the students to think about it.  I have a few students whose hand shoots up automatically, and when I call on them, they need to pause to think of their response.  You too?  Then I also have a consistent core group of students who love to participate, and who, once they’ve thought about it, raise their hand in order to share.  And then there are the rest of the students who watch and wait.  They tend to keep their hands by their sides and their eyes looking down.  I recognize that some are feeling unsure, but it is so important to participate in the discussion.  Today I felt that this question could be asked of one of the students in this third group.  I looked over the group and chose carefully.  The student I called on thought for a moment and then suggested <sci + en + tist>.

Me: “That’s very interesting.  Thank you for that.  What do the rest of you think about Vanessa’s hypothesis?  Is there a part of it that you have seen before in another word?  Do you recognize any affixes you’ve seen before?”

Student: “I kind of think that it isn’t <tist>, but rather <ist> at the end.”

Me: “Can you think of another word with <ist> at the end?  If we can, we will have collected some evidence that the <ist> is a suffix.”

One of the students who is usually reluctant to raise his hand, raised his hand.  I called on him.  He said, “Mist?”

Me: “Oooooo.  Now that’s an interesting word.  I want to come back to that word in a minute.  Thank you for thinking of it.”  I called on another student whose hand was raised.

Student: “I was thinking of biologist. ”

As I was writing ‘biologist’ on the board, other words were being called out.  I wrote them down as fast as I could.  There was paleontologist, archeologist, arsonist, tribologist, and zoologist.  And almost before I could finish writing the last word, a student blurted.  “Hey!  Almost all of them have an <log> before the <ist>!”

Me: “Brilliant!  Scholars are people who notice things!  Thank you for noticing that.  Can anyone tell me what a biologist is?”

Student: “It’s someone who studies living things.”

Student: “And the <o>’s a connecting vowel, isn’t it?”  (The student was referring to the <o> that follows the <bi> base.  We had looked at ‘biosphere’ earlier in the year.)

Me: “It sure is!”

Student: “And isn’t a paleontologist someone who studies fossils?”

Me: “Yes.  And an archeologist?”

Students said they heard of it, but no one knew what exactly an archeologist studied.  So I told them that this person would be studying old times and ancient civilizations.  At this point, a student who hadn’t previously joined the discussion raised his hand and said, “What’s an arsonist?”

The person who had suggested the word replied, “A person who starts fires.”  There were a few confused by that.  I could tell by their facial reactions.  I went on to say that there are people fascinated by fire and they start fires to watch how the fire travels.  Then I added that sometimes other people get hurt either fighting these fires or because they got caught in the fire.  Arsonists usually get in trouble for starting fires.

When we were ready to look at the next word, at least three people spoke at once and explained that a tribologist was a person who studied rubbing things together.  Yes, it’s true.  About a week and a half ago, we watched a TED video about Jennifer Vail, a tribologist.  She is really quite fascinating.  Obviously the students thought so too because they suggested this word and remembered a lot about the video too!  Click HERE for a link to the video in case you are intrigued.

Lastly, someone identified a zoologist as someone who studies animals.

Me: “I notice that all of these words have an <-ist> suffix, and they each refer to a person.  We call that kind of suffix an agent suffix.  There are others, but for today we are noticing this one, the <-ist> suffix.”

At this point I went back to the word <mist>.  I asked if <mist> belonged on this list.  I asked if it was referring to a person?  The student who had suggested it, said that it did not fit.  I followed up by saying that the <ist> in mist is like the <ing> in sing.  Neither are suffixes.  They are coincidences of spelling.

Me: “If the <-ist> suffix is the part of the word that tells us this word is referring to a person, which part of the word is telling us that the person studies something?”

Student: “The <log>?”

Me:  “Excellent.  So notice now that the biologist is the person who studies living things and the paleontologist is the person who studies fossils, but the arsonist is the person who starts the fire.  It is NOT the person who studies fires.  Right?  There’s no <log> in that word.  And so the scientist is the person who does the science just like an artist is the person who does the art!  <Loge> is a bound base with a denotation of “science of.”  We usually think of it having to do with studying the science of something.  That makes every word up here with <log> in it a compound word!  Awesome thinking everyone!  Now let’s get back to the word we started looking at, <scientist>.  We’ve figured out that the <-ist> is a suffix.  What are your thoughts about the rest of the word?”

Student:  “Well, I’m thinking about <science> and wondering if what happens is that when the <-ist> suffix is added to <scient>, the <t> changes to <ce>?”

Me:  “Interesting.  The suffixing changes I have seen are a final consonant being doubled, a <y> changing to an <i>, and a single, final, non-syllabic <e> being replaced.  I haven’t ever seen a change like you are describing.  Could it be that <ent> and <ence> are both suffixes and are used to get two forms of the word?  Can anyone think of a word with an <ence> suffix?”

Student:  “Coincidence!  You just said that the <ist> in <mist> was a coincidence of spelling!”

Me:  “So I did. Can anyone think of another word?  The more words we can think of the more evidence we have.”

Student:  “Evidence.  You just said the word evidence!”

Me:  “That is so funny.  I surely did!”

Student:  “How about violence?”

Student:  “How about brilliance?”

Student: “Brilliance is spelled with an <-ance>.”

Me:  “Right.  Brilliance does have an <-ance>.  I’ll write it to the side in case we think of more like that.”

Student: “And silence.”

And then it dawned on me.  And I pointed out that we can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘coincidence’ for <-ent> and make the word ‘coincidental’.  We can switch out the <-ence> suffix in ‘evidence’ with the <-ent> suffix and make the word ‘evidently’.  At this point the students began to anticipate that ‘violence’ could be ‘violent’ and ‘silence’ could be ‘silent’.  So we decided that the suffixes <-ence> and <-ent> can work with the same base.  And of course we thought about <-ance> and <-ant> having the same kind of relationship.

Student:  “Could it be that these suffixes are different forms of the same suffix, kind of like the assimilated prefixes we are studying?”

Me:  “That’s something to think about, isn’t it?”

I will admit that the last question put the biggest smile on my face.  I love that the students are making connections to what else they are learning about English spelling.  I love that they are asking questions and getting caught up in these classroom discussions.  It was so much fun!  I’m beginning to recognize that from February to June is my favorite time of the year.  This is when the pieces start to fit together and the understandings start falling into place.  The students start having words on their minds all the time.  Here is a picture of the board.  You will recognize how everything ended up where it did from my description above.  You may also recognize that I misspelled paleontology.  I didn’t notice that until tonight when I was looking back at the picture.

All of the above happened with the second class I see during my day.  There was one more group to come in.  They needed to take this journey for themselves, so I erased the board and started all over.  Different words were suggested, but the ending observations were the same.

Now I want to take you back to my lunchtime discussion with my grade level colleagues.  As I was going on about what the students were thinking of and what we were noticing as a class, I could tell that it was one of those times “you had to be there.”  They weren’t feeling as excited as I was.  They listened and followed along, but didn’t get why this was such a big deal for me.  And then one of them said something that explained her perspective to me perfectly.  She said, “That’s just it.  If some words can have an <-ence> and some can have an <-ance>, how will our struggling spellers know which one to use?  What can you tell them so they know which one to use?”

She is used to false rules that focus on what is on the surface of a word without having to really know much about the word.  I told her that we would need to know more about the word’s etymology to know which to use.  In the meantime, the understanding gained today will help if, for example, the student can spell ‘silent’, and want to spell ‘silence.’  Instead of phonetically spelling it as *silints (which they may do anyway – phonics runs deep), they have a chance of knowing that it will have an <-ence> suffix.  I have no magic fix-it fairy dust.  I just keep letting students see for themselves what is really happening in spelling and how consistent it is. Progress comes more slowly than others would like, but that is because instead of “know this by Friday for the test”, I am not telling students what to know.  I let them see for themselves.  I give them time to let things sink in. We revisit concepts often and hope that much of the understandings they develop here, will be theirs for life.

I can hardly wait for tomorrow so I can take the discussion in this same direction with my first group.  We talked about some of these things this morning, but we didn’t take it in this direction.  I’d like to see what words they think of, and if they recognize for themselves what the other students recognized today.  Below is a picture of the board from the discussion I had with my last group of the day.  I love looking at this and knowing that between the three classes, we collect a lot of evidence to support what we understand about spelling.  That much is evident.  🙂

 

Twelve students and twenty minutes … Let’s make the best of this!

For about two months in late fall, I worked with a group of 12 students for 20 minutes a day, four times a week.  These were students I also saw for 90 minutes every day when they came in as part of their homeroom.  This small group opportunity is part of what our school calls WIN time (WIN stands for What I Need).  As a grade level team, we talk about the needs we see and how to group the students so we can address those needs.  I asked for this particular group of 12 based on spelling errors I saw in their writing samples at the beginning of the year. What an opportunity to reinforce some reliable concepts in our language!

We started by looking at words that take an <-es> suffix versus those that take an <-s> suffix.  I picked this because it’s a great place to begin noticing things about suffixing, digraphs, and roles of the single final non-syllabic <e>.  I could have started with any number of activities.  In fact, it seems that no matter where I begin when talking about English spelling, we end up reinforcing many ideas, just in different contexts.  That is the beauty of teaching with a Structured Word Inquiry focus.  We think about something particular, we collect some words to examine what it is we are focusing on, we make some observations about what we are seeing, and in the process of all that, we deepen our understanding of many things.  Most important of all, we build an understanding of the connectedness of these concepts and facts about how our spelling system works.

Another reason I chose to start with the <-s> and <-es> suffixes is that I wanted to give this group a preview of them before we discussed them as a larger group.  It always amazes me how much we can talk about in only 20 minutes!  We began by talking about using angle brackets to represent a spelling.  When we see a word in angle brackets, we spell it out.  We don’t announce it.  When we want to announce it, we can either write the word without angle brackets at all or we can represent the pronunciation in IPA.  If we use IPA symbols, we use slash brackets.  As you can see below, I demonstrated with the word <teach>.  I also showed the students how we might represent the graphemes and digraphs in the word <teach>.  The word has 5 letters and 3 graphemes.  One of the graphemes is a single letter grapheme, and the others are digraphs.  I don’t spend too much time on what I have just described because with this group beginning in mid-October,  this information is already something we are reviewing.

The next thing we did was to talk about words that can take an <-s> suffix.  If you look at the left side of the picture below, you’ll see that as the students suggested words, I was writing the final letter of the word + s.  In this way I could encourage the students to think of words that ended in other ways (besides words that end with the same letter that was previously named).  Since we already had the word <teach> on the board, I asked what suffix we would add if we wanted to talk about the person who teaches in the next room.  In this case, we are not adding a suffix in order to make the word plural.  We are adding a suffix to indicate the verb tense.  A few of the students knew we would add an <-es> suffix to <teach>, <peach>, and <coach>, but no one knew why.

When someone asked about <bounce>, I wrote it out as a word sum.  When a word ends in a single final non-syllabic <e>, it is not as obvious to the students that the suffix being added is an <-es>.  When we compare the spelling prior to adding the suffix to the spelling of the word after the suffix has been added, it would appear that only an <s> was added.  But that is not the case.

In order to understand why we need an <-es>, I directed the focus to the word someone had thought of that ended with a final <t> – <pits>.  We announced the word <pits> as /pɪts/ and noticed that we could easily feel ourselves adding the /s/ after the /t/.  Then we announced the word <teaches> as /titʃɪz/ and noticed that immediately following the /tʃ/ we said /ɪz/.  In fact we found it awkward and unsuccessful to follow the /tʃ/ with either /s/ or /z/ by itself.  In other words, we needed the suffix to be <-es> which would add an /ɪz/ to the pronunciation of the base.

Now we took a look at <bounce> (the rest of that list wasn’t there yet).  We tested to see if we could just add an <-s> suffix to bounce.  The students realized quickly that the word ends with an /s/ already.  Adding an <-s> suffix wouldn’t work. In announcing the word with the suffix added, we wouldn’t know where one /s/ left off and the next one began!  Then they tried adding the /ɪz/ of <-es> to the base /bɑʊns/.  That worked!

My next question to the students was, “Why does the word <bounce> have a final <e>?”  No one was sure.  There were guesses about the vowels in the word, but in this word, the <e> had a different role.  I asked if anyone could think of two more words that were similarly spelled.  The words <spice> and <fence> were suggested.  I asked, “Why weren’t we able to just add an <-s> suffix?”

“Because there was already an /s/ at the end of the word and it would end with /s..s/!”

Of course that led to lots of students trying to demonstrate how it wouldn’t work.  But that’s okay.  I know they understand.

“Does the <c> always represent /s/ in a word?”

“No.  It’s a /k/ in <cat>.  Oh!  The <e> tells us the <c> is /s/!”

We noted that in <spice>, the <e> was doing two things.  It was also indicating that the <i> would be pronounced as /aɪ/.  Next I asked if they could think of words that ended with a /s/ pronunciation, but were not spelled with a <c>.  They quickly thought of horse, house, and mouse.  We discussed the role of the single, final non-syllabic <e> in these words.  The <e> in these words had yet a different role!  It was preventing the words from looking like plurals when they clearly weren’t!  My favorite examples of where leaving off the final <e> would truly confuse a reader are please and pleas and dense and dens.  A student may not recognize why someone would think *hous is a plural word since *hou isn’t a word in English, but they will recognize that dens are where some animals live.

I left our notes on the board and explained the work my WIN group had done to my regularly scheduled classes.  The 12 were scattered among three classes and were eager to explain things for the rest of their class when the opportunity came up.

 

Day 2

The next day I wanted to continue looking at words that take an <-es> suffix.  I wanted to focus on the ending grapheme/phoneme correspondences when the word was in its singular form.  I listed the headings and together we noticed which graphemes could represent those phonemes.  In the first column, I started by underlining the final <tch> trigraph and/or the <ch> digraph. then we moved to the middle two columns that ended up including four different graphemes that could represent a final /s/!  As you can see, I wrote out word sums so they could see over and over that with these word final phonemes, we would need to use an <-es> suffix.  I also underlined the final graphemes in each word.  As we went along, the students tried adding an <s> pronounced as /s/ and then quickly knew they needed to add an <-es> pronounced as /ɪz/.  With words in the last column, we talked about the single, final non-syllabic <e> that was following the <g>.  The students wondered aloud if it was like the <e> that follows a <c>!  So then we could compare the <g> grapheme (when followed by an <e>) to the trigraph <dge>.

The last thing I did was to point out the vowel in front of the trigraphs <tch> and <dge>.  I asked if the students recognized whether they were considered short vowels or long vowels.  We said them together and they identified them as short.  I underlined them in red.

Again, I left our work on the board and shared our findings with the three larger classes.

 

Day 3

While sharing with the larger groups yesterday, someone asked about words with a final /z/ phoneme.  How brilliant, right?  Of course we added another column today and explored the graphemes that could represent the phoneme /z/.  Once more we went over the different final graphemes and proved to ourselves that they couldn’t take an <-s> suffix, whether it was representing an /s/ or /z/ phoneme.  The words with these final grapheme/phonemes needed to take an <-es> suffix that would be announced as /ɪz/.

 

Day 4

Today we went back to explore the words with either a final <tch> trigraph or a <ch> digraph.  The students brainstormed a bunch of example words of each.  Then we made observations about what was immediately in front of each.  We began to notice some consistencies.  In front of a word final <ch> digraph there was either a consonant or a vowel digraph.  In front of a <tch> digraph there was a single short vowel.  We wondered if this could explain why a <ch> is used in <bench> and not a <tch>.  It was time to get the students working on their own.  I split them into groups of two.  This is my favorite group size for word investigation.  Here are the specific topics of inquiry for each group:

~words in which a consonant precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a vowel digraph precedes a final <ch> digraph.
~words in which a single vowel precedes a final <tch> trigraph.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when an <-ion> suffix is added.
~words with a final <t>, but whose pronunciation changes when a <-ure> suffix is added.
~words that take an <-es> suffix.

And they were off!  They got out their orthography notebooks and turned to the next available page.  One in each group grabbed a Chromebook so they could look at Word Searcher to find words with the targeted word ending.  They also had a dictionary handy in case there was a word they didn’t know.  I walked around to make sure each group was clear on what they were looking for.  Then I let them work on their own for the rest of the time.

 

Day 5

Another group work day.  They were collecting words and keeping track of them in their notebooks.  I walked around and checked in to make sure they weren’t collecting words they didn’t know when there were plenty of words they did know to choose from.  That seems like something I shouldn’t have to do, but my students are new to tasks that ARE NOT busy work.  They are used to mindless spelling tasks in which they aren’t expected to really think about what they are doing and why.  After years of Words Their Way, they are used to shifting words into piles that don’t necessarily make sense to them.  The words are moved there because of some surface-y reason that does not have any basis in the logic of our English spelling system.  And the students learn to do the task without asking the kinds of questions that lead to a better understanding that logic.

 

Day 6

I circulate, guiding the students in now grouping the words they found.  If they found a vowel digraph in front of the <ch> digraph for instance, how many words did they find with that same vowel digraph?  How many different vowel digraphs did they find?  Each group had some organizing to do before they could make observations.

 

Day 7

By this point, the groups were not all at the same point in their investigations.  That makes sense because they were investigating different things.  When one group starts making a poster or chart, the other groups get a little concerned.  They ask, “When is this due?” I always tell them that they will be given the time they need, provided they stay focused and productive each day.  The groups that were investigating digraphs and trigraphs were given large graph paper so they could share their findings by creating bar graphs.  The groups looking at a word final <t> and what happens to its pronunciation when an <-ion> or <-ure> suffix is added, made their own posters.  I asked them to include a page where they color coded the graphemes and phonemes in each word so we could see how the grapheme <t> ended up representing more than one phoneme.

As the groups finished, I asked them to write scripts.  What would they say as they presented their findings?  I told them that when they had a script written, I would revise it, edit it, and then I would record their presentation with my camera.  They liked that idea!  I liked the idea that they now had to think through their observations as they were writing them down.  This took several days, and the video recording took several more for each group.  When one group was completely done, I gave them another investigation that could easily be finished with our regular classroom work (back with their homeroom groups).

Here are the videos sharing the investigative work they did.

 

 

As I was filming these, I saw that a few groups of students chose words that they didn’t know.  I was hoping to catch those prior to the presentations, but obviously I didn’t catch them all.  When I asked the students if they knew those words, an interesting thing happened.  They said they did!  And then they proceeded to announce the words.  Do you see here what I see?  The students who struggle with reading and writing the most believe that announcing a word means you know that word.  Can they use it in a sentence?  No.  Do they know what it means?  No. But they have been taught (without the words necessarily having ever been said out loud) that announcing a word is what’s important in reading.  It is more important than what the word means.  Fluency over comprehension.  That is what the students think.  This is why I will always push the idea that a word’s meaning is the most important thing to know about a word.  Once we know its meaning, we can research to understand its spelling and then its pronunciation.

I have seen the effects of the small group work with the students mentioned in this post.  On a day that we were reviewing suffixes, they spoke up confidently about when to use <-es> versus <s>.  In the group work we are currently doing, they no longer sit quietly.  They contribute.  They question.  In their daily work I am still seeing spelling errors.  Of course I am.  I cannot single handedly help 75 students understand every single spelling error they make.  But what I can do is help them understand some of the consistent patterns we see in English.  Notice I said to “understand some of the consistent patterns.”  Up until now they may have been required to memorize lists that had consistent patterns, but that is not the same as understanding why a spelling is one way and not another.  What I teach helps them understand the spelling of many words – even words they don’t know yet.  I am teaching how the system works, not just how a single word is spelled.

Once the last group was finished with video recording, the WIN groups were reshuffled so that other needs in other areas could be addressed.  I have a new group now.  We are not working on word investigations.  This time we are reading Peter Pan and stopping to talk about the colorful and often times unfamiliar vocabulary used.  We also pause to look at the specific writing techniques of James M. Barrie.

And just in case you are wondering, our current project is focused on the topic of assimilated prefixes!

Sometimes I’m Sorry … Sometimes Not So Much

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

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

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

 

Sorry

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

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

~~David

 

Dottie

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.

~~Emillie

 

Sorry for Being Annoying

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

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

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

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

Just kidding!
I’m way too funny!

~~Ali

 

Dear Sasha,

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

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

I looked all over town for you.
No luck.

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

I hadn’t looked yet,
the garage.

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

~~Ari

 

The Soccer Mistake

Dear Sammy,

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

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

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

Sincerely your friend,

~~Cohen

 

My Apology To My Brother

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

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

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

For now,
it’s just us two.

~~Ben

 

 Apologizing  

Dear Wishley,

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

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

I didn’t realize
it would hurt like that.

~~Sam

 

Apologizing

Dear Muffin,

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

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

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

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

I miss you.

~~Reehya

 

 

Explorations and Discoveries Via Voyages

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”   Marcel Proust

We were watching a TED talk  about the interesting forms of life found at the bottom of the ocean.  The presenter, David Gallo, used the above quote.  He was referring to being open to what he might see as he voyaged to the bottom in his submarine, Alvin.  The TED talk was fascinating.  Gallo’s enthusiasm and excitement kept the attention of my students and myself.  He made us feel as if we were on the voyage with him and seeing what he saw.  And he got me thinking about the word <voyage>.

Several images popped into my head…

~the name of an old television show my brothers used to watch when I was a child – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”,

~people waving and shouting “Bon Voyage!” to people on large oceangoing boats such as the Titanic.

It got me thinking.  In both of those situations the voyage itself is a trip across or down into a large body of water (and in the case of the Titanic, an unintentional “down into a large body of water”).  These are major undertakings.  What other kinds of journeys are considered to be voyages?

As silly as it sounds, my mind went to another television series, “Star Trek: Voyager”, that my children watched at times during its run from 1995-2001.

And at that point I thought of Voyager I and Voyager II which are the unmanned spacecrafts originally launched in 1977 that are still sending us information from the outer reaches of space!  As I was watching the video I have included here, the following words popped out at me. “It’s discovering new things because it’s going where nothing has been before.”  That sentiment is similar to what I heard David Gallo use in his TED talk.  It was the connection between a voyage, exploration, and discovery.

With a solid idea of how I think of this word, and of how I have heard it used in significant ways, I was ready to explore it further.  You see, what I have learned since happening upon Structured Word Inquiry is that there is discovery beyond a word’s current day usage.  It is something I now look forward to.  It’s like a special gift I used to overlook because I was looking for fancy paper which would make it catch my attention.  Instead, the wrapping was the word itself.  You might think of it as having been camouflaged in its own spelling!

My first stop is the dictionary that is on my Mac desktop.  The definition of <voyage> confirms what I already knew – that a voyage is a trip, generally by sea or space.

Next I check in at Etymonline.

The word <voyage> wasn’t used as a verb until the 15th century, but was used as a noun as early as the 13th century.  That is when it was first attested.  Before that it was used in Old French, spelled voiage, and used to mean “travel, journey, movement, course, errand, mission, crusade.”  As I think of those words, the only two I might link to discovery or exploration are mission and crusade.  Further back in time this word existed in Late Latin as viaticum “a journey.”  The next note in the entry says that in Classical Latin viaticum referred to the “provisions for a journey.”  This is even further away from the sense that is so prevalent in today’s use of the word!  Further back in time we see that this word is from via “road, journey, travel.”  This piece of information is quite interesting, don’t you think?  I have used the word <via> to mean “by way of.”  I might say I travel to Madison via highway 12/18.  Before I take off down that “road”, I want to see what other resources say about <voyage>.

Next I look in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Again we are looking at <voyage> as a noun before it was used as a verb.  The entry says that probably before 1300 it was viage “a traveling, journey.”  Around 1300 the spelling was veyage; borrowed from Old French veiage, vayage, voiage, vaiage and was used to mean “travel, journey, voyage.”  The spelling voyage was first recorded in English in 1527, probably influenced by the spelling of the verb.  The spelling of the verb is attested in 1475 in Caxton’s translation of the History of Jason.  It was borrowed from Middle French voyager, from the Old French noun, voyage.  The dictionary goes on to conclude that <voyager> is probably formed from the English verb voyage + er.

Next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here I find this word used in 1297 to mean “an act of traveling; a journey by which one goes from one place to another (esp. at a considerable distance).  One thing I love about the OED is the examples of this word in actual use.  I can read sentences that include this word from as early as 1297.  What I find when I do that is that people were taking voyages for many reasons.  Some were just heading home.  Some were on a pilgrimage which has a different sense then a voyage with a destination.  Others were possibly part of those crusades mentioned at Etymonline.  A sentence from c1550 states, “Thei..toke their viage toward Rome, destroying all thinges on everie side.”  And another from 1564, “The consuls toke then their viage to invade Carthage”.  Since these were typically long trips, it would make sense that the people traveled by horse, yet there is another sentence from 1584, “We must take our voyage on foote the space of forty dayes by the waters side”.

And then there are many examples of how this word has been used to refer to trips over water from as early as 1310.  From what we know about early explorers, that is not surprising.  As I kept reading through the entry, I saw that in 1667, the word was used to mean a journey, but in a different sense.  “So stears the prudent Crane Her annual Voiage, born on Windes”.  This sentence is from Paradise Lost and is referring to the bird who, while voyaging, is carried by the winds.  Here is where the sense and meaning of <voyage> leaves the ground and the water and ventures into the skies!  In 1893, the earth itself is referred to as taking a yearly voyage around the sun.

Another interesting use of this word is in a figurative sense to describe certain events of human life and even what happens after life.  Here’s an example of this use in a sentence from 1390.  ” Fourtiene yer sche was of Age, Whan deth hir tok to his viage”.  If my interpretation of this is correct, a 14 year old girl was taken on death’s voyage.  Here’s an interesting sentence from 1529.  “Yt much more special assistence of god with his christen churche in their spiritual viage”.  I wonder if that is in reference to someone’s deepening of faith (spiritual voyage).  One more from 1771, “Among our fellow-lodgers at Berwick, was a couple from London, bound to Edinburgh, on the voyage of matrimony”.  These examples show this word having a sense that indicates a journey with a goal or destination.

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Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life Youth, 1842 (National Gallery of Art)

This is such an interesting word!  I feel like I could almost create a timeline to show how it has gone from meaning simply traveling on land, to including water, to journeying in space, and even to have other figurative senses which are vital to a writer’s mind.  It’s time to go back to Etymonline and follow that link to Latin via “road, journey, travel.”

The entry is referring to <via> as a preposition “by way of.”  It was first attested in 1779 and is the ablative form of via “way, road, path, highway, channel, course.”  Further back it is from the Proto-Indo-European root *wegh- “to go, move, transport in a vehicle.”  Continuing in the entry we see that this PIE root is also the source for our English word <way>.  There are a number of words that include a form of this stem, via “road.”  I have encountered this base before and have found it helpful in visualizing a word’s meaning.

obvious – from <ob-> “in front of; against” and viam “way.”  When something is obvious, it is right there in your way and you cannot avoid seeing it or dealing with it!

impervious – from <im-> “not”, <per-> “through”, and via “road.”  When a surface is impervious (such as blacktop), the water runs off of it because it cannot filter through the road.  One of the activities I have done in my classroom to show the difference between an impervious surface and one that is pervious, is to grab a paint tray.  I put a piece of felt on the left side (to represent grass and dirt) and leave the other side open (to represent a parking lot surface).  Then the student drizzles water from the top.  How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the pervious side?  How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the impervious side?  It is surprising how much water the piece of felt will hold.

deviate – from <de-> “off, away” and via “way.”  When someone deviates from the plan, they are not sticking to the agreed upon path!  They are going off in their own way.

previous – from <pre-> “before” and via “road.”  We think of something that has happened previously as something that has been on this “path” before – something that has gone this way before.

trivial –  from <tri-> “three” and via “road.”  This word is one of my favorites because of the following scene I associate with it.  At a place where three roads meet, people traveling on those roads might stop and chat.  These people are traveling by foot for the most part and no doubt look forward to a bit of friendly conversation.  It is a very public place and the topics of conversation are the little things everyone’s life is full of.  One might discuss the weather, their business (crops perhaps), politics, or family happenings.  And if you are already putting two and two together, you are noticing that these things could be considered trivia!

 

 


From 1890 Baby’s Annual Pictures and Stories for Little People.  It was published by D. Lothrop Company.

Every time I conduct one of these word investigations, I feel like I have embarked on a voyage of sorts.  Not because I began at point A with a question and arrived at an endpoint with an answer, but rather because like the satellites Voyager I and Voyager II, my question has been launched and is still out there.  My curiosity is still aflame.  My interest is lit and I am receptive to understanding more about any of this when it becomes obvious to me – when it is right there in my path.  My smile will only broaden and I will listen attentively.  I seek to voyage back in time to consider how a given word was used by the people who spoke it and/or wrote it.  I seek to explore its current spelling and understand the significance of the graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. I seek to discover the bigger picture that includes a particular word, but also its relatives, be they morphological or etymological.  Think about it.  After 40 years, Voyager I and II are still transmitting information to the earth, even though they continuously travel further and further away.  We could say, they have boldly gone where no man has gone before!  If you are or were ever a Star Trek fan, you will recognize those words.  Hmmm.  Now I’m thinking about the word <trek>.

“We don’t receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves.”  Marcel Proust

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

Mel's Diner

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

your dinner

you’re dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Conduct.”
“Contradict.”
“Confess.”
“Convict.”
“Confident.”

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.

“Tractor.”
“Traction.”
“Subtract.”
“Abstract.”

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>!

Diner:

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

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

Delicious Food Served Sign

 

Waiting for the Tides to Change

Picture courtesy of www.willstevenphotography.com

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

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

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

Ponder that for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my opinion, the three biggest problems  are these:

ONE

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.

TWO

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.

THREE

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

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

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

Wood Farm Fence Clip Art And 4Vector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Motivates Your Learning?

When I first began teaching fifth grade, there was a teacher down the hall that I just could not respect.  It had nothing to do with her knowledge of the content, it had to do with her manner of delivery.  It didn’t matter if she was talking to children or to adults.  She was abrasive and completely unaware that humiliating a person in front of a group of people made them less apt to listen to anything else she had to say.

She had a reputation for hugging and kissing your head one minute and embarrassing you for making an error the next.  Students who forgot their homework or lunch were petrified to tell her for fear of her wrath.  I remember one incident in which a student forgot to attend a meeting in her room for a club she was leading.  She made sure this student sat in the office during an all-school field day event as a consequence.  Students who were assigned to go room to room picking up the daily attendance hated having to stop at her room.  If she had it hanging on the door, all was good.  But if you had to knock at the door to ask for it, you were publicly scolded for interrupting her teaching.  Those who were afraid to knock were also admonished for just standing there.  Yep, she had a reputation.

The first year I worked in my district, I taught for a half day and serviced students with reading needs the other half.  I remember being assigned to work with a specific student in her room.  One day early in the year, the students were working on creating a presentation.  I pulled a chair up next to the student and asked how she was organizing her ideas for the presentation.  I got a piece of paper and drew some lines in preparation for discussing a framework from which she could work.  The teacher’s voice boomed loudly across the room, “Stop helping her!  She is not to have help with this!  This is her project and I do not want you doing this for her!”  And then she smiled as if she had just passed along helpful information.  The teacher could not see what I was doing with the child, nor could she hear what I was saying.  I wasn’t doing the work for the child, but she didn’t bother to find that out before yelling across the room.  The child looked at me and instantly felt sorry.  I was so humiliated, that I left the room.  This teacher never explained anything about this project to me before class.  I was there to help this child, yet the teacher did not want me to help.  What exactly did she want me to do?   I hated going in there.  I was so glad when that year was over.

As a first year teacher, I had an opportunity to watch and learn from someone with a lot more experience than me.  But her treatment of others was so jarring and humiliating, I couldn’t appreciate and now don’t remember anything about her teaching.  However, I will never forget the looks on the faces of the children she blasted for not punctuating something or not having followed one direction or another.  You know, for having made a mistake.

I think Maya Angelou said it best:

The teacher in question didn’t think it was in anyone’s best interest to worry about a person’s feelings.  She needed to speak the “truth” and if someone didn’t take that well, that was their problem.  The facts had to be put out there, and after all, she had always been direct and bold about it.  People were supposed to accept that about her.  That’s who she was.

In imagining that a few hurt feelings were insignificant (maybe even necessary in the process of learning) or that most people she had contact with didn’t complain about her manner, she deluded herself.   People didn’t confront her because they feared the treatment everyone knew to expect from her.  People didn’t confront her because they felt powerless to productively change the situation.  Instead, people talked about her behind her back.  Instead, people sought out the children in her room who were her “targets” for the year and offered them hugs and a sympathetic ear.  I, myself, went directly to the principal before my own children were in 5th grade and requested they be in anyone’s classroom but hers.  I could not imagine to what degree her unpredictable treatment of the children limited their learning.  How can learning be fun when you are “walking on eggshells” each day, or waiting for her to spot a mistake you made? I stopped taking her seriously as a professional the first time I saw her humiliate a child.  When she humiliated me as well, I began to avoid contact with her whenever possible.  How many of those children actually enjoyed coming to school each day?  I sure didn’t.

Now let’s compare her to the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever met.  This is someone who encourages collaboration, and sees himself as a participant in the learning.  In fact, he thanks the students who gather in his classroom for challenging his understandings and giving him more to think about.  He encourages his students to get together and study without him because like I said, he does not see himself as THE ONLY ONE with knowledge.  He knows that learning happens when motivated people come together to ask questions and listen to one another.  Without him there, the students learn to learn.  They learn to share their thinking, they learn to listen and they learn to ask the questions that will steer whatever inquiry they are working on.  Of course, once the students’ inquiry has run its course, they seek the teacher out and set up a meeting to share all of their new questions!

When someone makes a mistake, he thanks the student and calls it a big fat juicy mistake that will give all who are listening an opportunity to understand something better.  Following his lead, others in the class also offer thanks to the classmate whose mistake pointed to their own misunderstanding.  If someone in the class reveals in some way that they are misunderstanding something, he uses examples and offers the clarification they need to build a more reliable foundation of the topic at hand.  And he does so in a way that does no harm to the student’s willingness to learn from him.  No one leaves his classroom feeling shame or humiliation.  No one leaves feeling uncomfortable because of how another student was made to feel.

One of the hardest and yet most amazing things I’ve learned from this teacher is not to need an immediate answer to a question.  As an educator and a lifelong student, that is not something I’ve been conditioned to do.  As a teacher, I’ve spent hours and hours thinking of the questions I’ll ask and the answers I’ll hope for.  After all, haven’t we been taught that the point of asking a question is getting an answer?  I can even note that at some point in my student life, I stopped asking the kinds of questions that were too big for immediate answers.  And then I slowed down with asking questions at all.  So here I am as a classroom teacher with 2o+ years of experience finally learning that my questions can sometimes merit a celebration!  And I’m finally learning to sit with a question and a few pieces of evidence.  Just sit.  And ponder.  And maybe even forget about it for a day or three or eight.  Further evidence will undoubtedly present itself, and at that point I’ll revisit my question and contemplate whether or not the new evidence is bringing further clarity.  If it does, great!  I’ll happily share that evidence and that question with someone.  But if it doesn’t, no sweat.  I’ll keep pondering.  In this way, the learning is truly ongoing.

How can these two teachers be so different?  Easy.  One focuses on the experience of learning and honors the human beings that ask to participate.  The other shares what she knows, but does not hold herself responsible for the effects her words have on others.  She expects faults and ignores  strengths.  One attracts people who want to learn and be respected in that process.  The other has students, but they are guarded.  They admit they are wrong before they are because they anticipate being called out for it.    They rely less on their own understanding and stay dependent on the teacher.  Even if that other 5th grade teacher had been extremely innovative or the most book-smart teacher I ever met, I wouldn’t have been able to get past her disregard for the feelings of others.  I was never able to learn from her because I lost respect for her.

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Connecting Us to a Place

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

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

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

Here are some examples of what they wrote.

Drifting Away

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

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

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

D.R.

 

At Home

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

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

E.G.

 

Home

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!

B.R.

 

My Christmas

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

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

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

S.S.

 

Waiting

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

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

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

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

That’s why he’s worth the wait.

K.H.

 

Bubba

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

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.

S.G.

 

Home

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

Home.

C.S.

 

Home

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!

T.B.

 

The Morning

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

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

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

E.B.

 

Home

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.

B.R.

 

Home

Home is where my dad
makes rad brownies.

Where my family’s jokes
crack me up

Where me and my family
decorate the Christmas tree

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

Home is where my heart is.

B.W.