You know how sometimes you look at a word you’ve written hundreds of times, and all of a sudden it looks totally strange? That happened to a colleague today. There was a math story problem that the whole class was working through. The problem had to do with a school bus – more than one to be exact. I don’t know what calculations were required to solve the problem, but I do know that writing the plural of bus is what stumped the teacher. At first she wrote ‘busses’ on the board. But then she couldn’t stop looking at it. “That doesn’t look right,” she thought out loud. “But yet it doesn’t look completely wrong either.”
The students (who tend to love correcting adults) shouted, “There’s only supposed to be one ‘s’ in the middle!”
As the teacher rewrote the word and changed it to ‘buses’, she agreed with the students. “Yes, that looks right.” But instead of turning her attention back to the math part of this, she paused and asked the following question. “But why is it spelled with only one ‘s’?
The responses she received were similar to the responses I get when I ask a question about spelling. The students have been taught that spelling is a reflection of pronunciation, so they don’t think of letters in a word as being there for any other reason. For example, when she asked why it was spelled with just one ‘s’, the students tried desperately to explain that there is a pronunciation difference between ‘busses’ and ‘buses’. Hmmmm.
Lucky for me, I had lunch with this teacher and she shared the discussion they had. My first reaction was that the suffixing convention tells us to double the final ‘s’ on the base and spell this plural as ‘busses.’ But we both acknowledged that we spell it as ‘buses.’ My next thought was that perhaps this was a case of American English spelling versus British English spelling. But I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t hide how delighted I was! When you least expect it, an opportunity to learn something you didn’t even know you didn’t know pops up! I love it! I couldn’t wait to see what I could find out. I went to my computer and searched “buses or busses?”
What I found was at Merriam-Webster. I read that until 1961, ‘bussed’ was the preferred spelling. So! Both spellings have been used! I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to cause the spelling to change. As often happens in moments of great discovery like these, the school bell rang. I had to go to the lunchroom to pick up students. I would have to read the rest of the information, when I returned. The group of students who had been in math with this teacher, would be in my room after lunch. A perfect opportunity to discover things and build understanding together!
Once the students and I were all settled, I wrote <hopping> on the board. I asked for the word sum. Someone offered, “h-o-p + ing.” Then the same person added, “but you double the <p>.”
“Why? Why does the <p> get doubled?”
“Because there’s no <e> like there is with ‘hope’.”
To illustrate for everyone what this student was saying, I wrote the word sum for ‘hoping’ on the board as well. We reviewed the suffixing convention that calls for the vowel suffix <ing> to replace the single final nonsyllabic <e>. Then I directed everyone’s attention back to the word sum <hop + ing>. “There is no single final nonsyllabic <e> on the base, and because there isn’t, we need to pay attention to what is final on this base.” As you can see, I underlined in blue the single final consonant on the base and then I underlined the single vowel in front of that consonant. I explained that the reason we double the <p> is because we are adding a vowel suffix to a base which ends in one final consonant and has one vowel in front of that consonant.
What happened next was kismet. A student in the back raised her hand and asked, “What about a word like buses?” Perfect! They were still thinking of the conversation in their math teacher’s room.
“How do you spell that?”
“It’s spelled b-u-s-es.”
“Interesting. Look back at ‘hopping’. Don’t we have the same situation here? Like we did with <hop>, we are adding a vowel suffix to <bus>, which has one final consonant and one vowel in front of that consonant. What do you think the word sum would be for that word?”
“It would be <bus + es>.”
“If we use the same suffixing convention we used with <hop>, how should we spell the plural of ‘bus’?”
“It should be b-u-s (double the s)-es.”
I wanted to make sure everyone understood that we begin by following the reliable suffixing conventions. When we find a word that doesn’t seem to be following those conventions, we are ready to ask why not. I wrote the two spellings on the board and we wrote analytic word sums. It was easy to write the one for ‘busses’ because we could explain the suffixing convention that would be applied. When we thought about a word sum for ‘buses’ it was as if the two morphemes coming together repelled as two magnets might. We needed to understand why the final <s> on the base did not get doubled. It was time to show them what I found out earlier.
A quick look at Etymonline revealed that the word ‘bus’ is really not all that old. It was first attested in 1832. It was an abbreviated form of ‘omnibus’ which was attested only three years earlier than that. An omnibus was a four wheeled vehicle that had seats for passengers. That’s not so different from what we think of as a bus today. It was a vehicle for all as the Latin <omni> “all” suggests. Below is a picture of an early horse drawn omnibus.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=553158
According to Merriam-Webster, by the 193o’s this word’s popularity started to bump heads so to speak with the already existing word ‘buss.’ Never heard of it? Me neither. It took me quite by surprise! It is much older than ‘bus.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘buss’ was first attested in 1567! As a noun, a buss is a loud or vigorous kiss. It is thought to be based on the sound that a loud or vigorous kiss might make!
As I was reading a 1996 use of this word in the OED, I realized what the problem would be for these two words.
“1996 Entertainm. Weekly 5 Apr. 96 Even after Maddie and David consummated the 1985–86 season with a passionate buss in a parking garage, viewers were not satisfied.”
In the above sentence, the singular form of buss is used, but what if more than one kiss was given in that parking garage? The season would have been consummated with passionate busses in a parking garage! Someone reading this would have to stop to wonder if these were passionate kisses or passionate vehicles! It made me laugh thinking about how confusing this could be.
I altered the quote above so that it was more appropriate for my students. I said, “Imagine how confusing it would be if I said that I saw someone give someone else two busses in the parking garage.” It could mean someone received two kisses, or it could mean they received two vehicles!
We wrote the word sum for ‘busses’ and compared it to that of ‘kisses.’ We noted that <es> was the suffix used and why that made sense. We laughed when thinking of what a single <s> suffix would look like when joined to this base or even how it would be pronounced.
Someone asked if perhaps the word ‘buss’ was pronounced differently than ‘bus.’ What a great question! It was easy enough to find at the OED. I wrote the IPA below it in the word sum. Then I looked up ‘bus’ in the OED and found the identical IPA representation. Cool.
So in the end, we realized that when seeing the word <busses>, a person wouldn’t know whether this was <bus (s) +es –> busses> or if it was <buss + es –> busses>. In the end the plural forms of each look the same even if the bases aren’t the same. Interesting stuff! This takes me back to the Merriam-Webster article that stated that up until 1961, the preferred plural of ‘bus’ in their dictionary was ‘busses.’ After that the preferred spelling became ‘buses’ so these two words would no longer be confused.
If your students are like mine, they will enjoy the humor in the following.
Even if you love your bus, it may look weird for you to buss your bus.
You can give me a hug, but please no busses.
No busses on the bus, unless it’s a buss from your parent.
Not too long ago I asked my students what they do when they are unsure of how to spell a word. I wanted to know how many strategies they had been taught that might help them. Here is what they told me.
Sound it out.
Make up a rhyme or song to help remember how to spell words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
Ask someone to tell you how to spell the word.
Spell it some kind of way and then don’t use it after that.
If someone suggests that you look in a dictionary, groan loudly because you know you will spend a lot of time at the dictionary and never find the word anyway because you don’t know how to spell it.
We haven’t equipped them very well, have we? I was recently having a discussion with someone who teaches children who are just beginning to learn to read. She told me that “sound it out” is a strategy for reading, not for spelling. Hmmm. When are the children ever told that? When are the people who teach the children ever told that? What are children offered instead? If it is recognized by both adults and children that “sound it out” isn’t reliable, what else are we teaching in its place?
This is an important question to ask. I need to know how well equipped they are for what I will be asking them to do all year — which is to write with minimal spelling errors. Those students with remarkable memories smile, feeling quite confident that they are pretty good at spelling. Those who can’t seem to remember the order of the letters in a word (even when they’ve written and rewritten the word twenty times), feel the opposite. They feel frustrated and dumb. It’s not uncommon to find out that those students started hating writing long before now – especially if they can’t read their own writing! I have a student currently who hates to go back and fix up his spelling so much that he insists on getting the right spelling for each word as he writes each sentence. As you can imagine, his ideas don’t flow very well in his writing. His mind is on spelling more than it is on the ideas he is trying to express. He has entered 5th grade absolutely hating writing because of spelling.
It pleases me to no end that I can offer my students real help. This is the year that they will learn a strategy that will actually help them understand spelling. And when they understand a spelling, there is a larger likelihood that they will remember the spelling of the word. They will learn how to spell words and not remember working at it to do so! Sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it? Listen to these two students.
The first student clearly expresses that learning to spell a word and then having to attach meaning to it is completely different than learning to spell a word based on that word’s structure and the denotation of its base(s). Her second grade memories illustrate the two things as separate activities. By studying orthography and noting the sense and meaning that is inherent in the base(s), she understands the spelling of the word AND its meaning, realizing that the meaning is represented in the spelling. Learning the word’s structure and meaning, and then noting the connections of the word’s base(s) to other words that share that base, is a revelation to anyone who has wondered about the English spelling system. It is as powerful for adults in remembering a word’s spelling and meaning as it is for children.
The second student in the video clearly expresses how effortless remembering the spelling of a word can feel. Notice that I did not say “memorizing a spelling.” That is what students do prior to coming to my classroom. It happens when teachers don’t have an understanding themselves, yet need the students to spell words accurately. I’m pretty sure that a large number of you (I’m including myself in that group) grew up memorizing spelling without any further understanding of that spelling. You can’t imagine what more there is to learn until you actually engage in investigating a word for yourself. The second student in this video has found this type of looking at words to be so helpful! As she says at the end, she learned how to spell the words she investigated and she didn’t even know she was! Every year my students tell me they know they are better at spelling than they were at the beginning of the year. If they feel empowered, isn’t that what it’s all about?
This next video features a student who has never struggled with memorizing the spelling of words. So how does studying orthography benefit her?
Even when our goal of having students know the spelling and meaning of a word is met, there is much we have left out! Here is a student that can easily memorize both the spelling and meaning of words she encounters. But even she recognizes that by studying orthography she is engaging in the learning in a way that she has not been asked to do before. “Here’s a list of words. Memorize them and then write out definitions.” Sound familiar?
I find that students are engaged in the word inquiries we conduct because they are leading the investigations. They are not being asked to regurgitate information that I collected for them about words. They are not matching definitions I wrote to words that I want them to know. They are creating hypotheses about a word’s structure. Then they are using resources (authentic, reliable, and not necessarily made for kids) to understand the information for themselves. Yes, I need to guide them in their use of those resources at first. But it doesn’t take long before they are independently finding out the story and word sum of a word. And in the course of doing so, they are understanding and learning its spelling.
Recently I saw a post from Haggard’s Hawk . (Click on the name to visit the Home Page. Haggard’s Hawk posts things on Facebook, Instagram, blog, and Twitter. I saw this on Twitter.) I find Haggard’s Hawk to be a fascinating source of word etymology. Paul Anthony Jones has written eight books that you can also check out at the link I have provided. So here is a screen shot of the post I saw:
My point in sharing this post is that until I looked at the etymology, I thought of the words <bereavement>, <bereaved>, and <bereft> as meaning someone is feeling sad because a loved one died. Adding the sense of “plunder” and “rob” amplifies (in a way) what bereavement means. My mother passed away several years ago now. Describing my bereavement as the feeling one has when being robbed of something is so much more accurate than describing what I was feeling as “sad.” Sad is used generically for hundreds of situations that happen every day. Being robbed of someone has that sense of unexpectedness and outrage (in a way). It truly feels as if I was robbed of having my mother in my life. My life has not been destroyed because she died, but I do feel a sense of my life having been plundered by it. I’ve had to try to put things back that were set askew. But something big will always be missing. And there’s that sense of having experienced being robbed.
Do you see how looking specifically at a word’s base element and its denotation can bring depth to a word? Having spent seven years learning about words with students, I am only more excited each and every day. I will never know the story of every word, but I will always be delighted to know one more. In the classroom, it is like the student in the video says, “Mrs. Steven learns it along with us. She just doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s really fun.”
So let’s get to the nitty gritty of this post. I teach my students to identify the structure of a word. I teach them that words are made up of a string of morphemes. Each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the entire word. The morpheme that carries the main sense and meaning of the word is the base element. A word that has more than one base element is a compound word. Most people understand this. The part they might not understand is that not all bases are free bases. What I mean by that is that not all bases can be words on their own. A base like <hope> is a free base because it is a recognizable word on its own. We could add a suffix, but we don’t have to in order for it to be a word. A base like <fer>, however, is a bound base. We never see it as a word on its own. We see it when it is paired up with affixes. You’ll no doubt recognize it in <offer>, <different>, and <conifer>. It has a denotation of “carry.” If I was guiding an investigation of <fer>, I would definitely encourage my students to find related words as I have done here. Then I would ask them to tell me how that sense of “carry” is there in the word. Sometimes it is a strong sense in the modern word, and sometimes it is faint. But it is always there. Check out this student’s enjoyment of learning about these connections.
This is another example of a student who didn’t necessarily struggle with memorizing spelling words. Yet here she is, excited to really understand that words have a structure and a history, and that by using the sense and meaning denoted in the base along with the sense that affixes contribute, she can understand the meaning represented in the word’s spelling! This is her “Eureka” moment and she looks forward to making the same comparisons and connections with each word she investigates!
In order to strengthen each student’s ability to create a logical hypothesis, we do the following. I write a word on the board and ask the students to think about it for a minute. Then I ask for volunteers to write a word sum hypothesis on the board beneath it. Here is an example:
As each hypothesis is added to the list, I will point out certain things we are seeing. With these three hypotheses, I noticed that all three have identified <ex-> as a prefix. I will now ask students to brainstorm other words that seem to have an <ex-> prefix. When students have collectively thought of three or more, then we decide that identifying <ex-> as a prefix is a logical idea seeing as we know it to be a prefix in other words.
Next I would point to what has been identified as suffixes. In two of the words <ion> has been suggested and in one word <sion> has been suggested. Now I ask the students what they think of those two suggestions. Can they think of other words that have either an <ion> or <sion> suffix? Since we recently took part in an activity in which students were focused on finding certain suffixes, a few of the students recognized that <-ion> is a suffix in <adoption> and in <action>. We thought of <expression>, but realized that even here, the suffix would have to be <ion> since the <s> before the <ion> in that word is part of the stem <express>.
That left us to consider whether the first or second hypothesis was more likely based on what we knew. No one was familiar with <pl> or <os> as morphemes on their own, but that doesn’t mean that neither of them is or isn’t a morpheme. Next we brainstormed words related to <explosion>. The students thought of:
Our related words list gave us evidence that the <ex> was a prefix because we could see that it could be replaced with an <im> prefix. We also saw the evidence that <ion> was a suffix because it could be replaced with <ive>. We were pretty sure that the base in this word was <plose>. A look at Etymonline revealed that this word’s furthest back relative was <plodere>. When I see that final ‘ere‘ on a Latin ancestor, I recognize that this was a Latin verb and the ‘ere‘ was an infinitive suffix. When removed, it reveals the stem that came into modern English as a base element. You have probably already noticed, however, that when we remove the ‘ere‘ we are left with <plode> and not <plose>. These are alternant spellings of the same Latin verb meaning “drive out with clapping.” You see, this verb was originally used in the theater. I bet you can imagine an audience exploding with applause. By the way, <applause> and <applaud> are related to these. They continued to be used in a theater sense, and <explosion> and <explode> began to be used in other situations as well.
The evidence we gathered supported the word sum <ex + plose + ion>.
Giving the students opportunities to hypothesize word sums encourages them think about many of the words they encounter in and out of school! It is not uncommon to hear from either students or parents about word conversations that took place in the car or at the dinner table! Here’s another example from last week. I put the word <constantly> on the board. Here are the word sum hypotheses the students created:
Because we had done this activity several times before, I did not begin by sharing what I noticed about these hypotheses. Instead I asked the students what they noticed about the three word sum hypotheses. “What do you see that you agree is a logical hypothesis for either an entire word sum or part of a word sum.” The first person noticed that all three hypotheses suggested that <ly> was a suffix. Other students easily thought of words with an <ly> suffix (lonely, quickly, happily). It may have helped that we looked at a list of words with <ly> suffixes the day before. And that may be why I chose a word with that suffix for today. A little reinforcing is always a good thing!
Then someone noticed that two of the hypotheses had <con> as prefixes. So we did some brainstorming again and thought of concert, construction, contract, concussion and congress. The students weren’t sure whether <con> really was a prefix in concert and congress, but they could think of replacing the <con> with <de> in <construction> (<destruction>), removing the <con> and adding an <or> suffix to <contract> (<tractor>), and replacing the <con> with <per> in <concussion> (<percussion>).
I specifically asked what everyone thought about the second word sum – the one that read <constant + ly>. I wanted to point out that when you absolutely cannot point to anything you recognize as a possible morpheme, then this would be a good choice. It is far better to “under-analyze” than to “over-analyze” without evidence. When you first start this activity with your students, you may notice that they assume that every two letters is a morpheme. Sometimes it is obvious to me that they are breaking the word into syllables, but sometimes it’s not even that. They just have no idea what’s what yet. They do not recognize enough affixes or bases. That is why I choose words that reinforce affixes we’ve already noticed. That is also why I show them how to think logically as they are thinking through the hypothesis they intend to propose.
The last two things to consider then are the possibility of a <stant> base or an <st> base and an <ant> suffix. My first question to the class was, “Can you think of any words with an <ant> suffix? Can we provide evidence that it might be a suffix?” After some thinking time someone offered up <pleasant>. Then the words <migrant> and <pollutant> were named. That was enough evidence that the <ant> might be a suffix. But then that left an <st> base. Is there such a thing? I thought back to the moment when the student wrote this particular hypothesis on the board. Another student kind of sniggered from his seat as if suggesting an <st> base was going too far. It does sound improbable, doesn’t it? We were now at the point when it was time to go to a resource. I called up Etymonline and shared it on the Smartboard with everyone. I searched for <constantly>. This is what came up:
The students were so perplexed. “What? Why does sourball come up?” I told them to read what they were looking at and then to raise their hand when they had an idea why this word came up in the search. It didn’t take long at all before they saw the word <constantly> in the entry for sourball. I then told them how glad I was that this happened. It just shows us that when we list a word in the search bar, the program looks for that word in all the places it exists on the site!
My next question was what to do next? How should I alter what I have in the search bar so we can keep going with our investigation? As if in harmony, most all of the students responded with, “Take off the <ly> suffix.”
As we read through the entry together, I pointed out that this word was first attested in the late 14th century. It is obviously a very old word. Then I went on to say that at that time this word was used to mean “steadfast, resolute; patient, unshakable; fixed or firm in mind.” I paused to think out loud and to model what I hope they do when they read during research. “Is that how we still use this word? What is something that we might describe as constant?” After a moment of thought someone said that a noise could be described as constant. So we talked about a dog who is constantly barking or an alarm that is constantly going off earlier than it should. Then we thought of the 14th century sense and meaning of this word – unshakable, fixed. We knew that we still use this word in the same way. It was time to keep reading.
Next we noticed that this word was either from Old French and had the same spelling then as we have today, or it was from Latin constantem with a sense and meaning of “standing firm, stable, steadfast, faithful.” As I kept reading, I saw the words “assimilated form” and pointed that out. “Look here! The word is from the assimilated form of com meaning ‘with, together.’ Then it says, ‘see con-‘. What do you suppose that is evidence of?”
Again they all responded, “A <con-> prefix!”
“Now keep reading. Do you notice how this is from an assimilated form of com + stare “to stand?” Do you see that? Well, let me tell you about that Latin verb. I happen to know it is a Latin verb because I recognize the infinitive suffix on it. You know how we have certain suffixes that we recognize as suffixes we use with verbs? You know, like <ing> sometimes and <s> sometimes? Well in Latin, one of the suffixes found on the verb in its infinitive form is an ‘-are.’ When we remove that suffix from this Latin verb, we see the Latin stem that came into Modern English and is now a base element.”
I wrote the Latin verb stare on the board and boxed out the infinitive suffix so the students could see what I was doing. In this way they could also see what would be left without the Latin suffix.
There was a bit of excitement mixed in with a bit of “I don’t believe it” when they realized that the Modern English base is indeed <st> and has a denotation of “stand!” The next step, of course, was to put together what we knew the base meant along with the sense carried by the prefix. We had a literal sense of “stand together.” Looking back at the way <constant> has been used in the past, several students right away spotted the words “standing firm” and “fixed.” Again we could relate these senses to how we use the word <constant>.
It was time to draw everyone’s attention back to our three hypotheses. It is always important to point out that there aren’t any right or wrong answers on the board. There are only hypotheses that can be supported by evidence and hypotheses that can’t. Nurturing that understanding builds an atmosphere in the classroom that is free of judgement. That is huge! In this case, there are two that we can support with evidence, and one that we can’t support with evidence. But even the one we can’t support with evidence had some logical and evidence-supported morphemes in it!
So as we were wrapping up this activity, a student in the back row raised her hand and asked, “What about pros and cons? Is the <con> in this same prefix, or is it a clip of something?”
The smile on my face was immediate! What a thought provoking question! I paused for a bit before saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like some time to think about this. Maybe others in here feel the same way. Would you please write your question over on the Wonder Wall? We’ll look at this tomorrow. In the meantime we can all have some time to think about it.”
When this group of students came in the next day, I started by asking how many had given this some thought. At least eight hands went up. I was impressed. One student explained that she had laid in bed the night before trying to think of what <pro> and <con> might be a clip of. Another student wondered if <pro> was a clip of proactive and that maybe <con> was a clip of conflict. Interesting. Someone else piped up and offered that <pro> might be a clip of proficient.
At this point, I said, “Let’s back it up a second and make sure we have a sense of what we mean when we use this phrase. Is there another phrase that is sometimes used in place of this one?” Students replied with:
“How about advantages and disadvantages?”
“Or pluses and minuses?”
Next we thought of a scenario in which we might make a list of pros and cons. Examples from our discussion included deciding whether or not to get a new pet and convincing parents to start/increase an allowance. Now I felt like we were ready to see what Etymonline had to say. We began by looking up <con>.
Immediately it was agreed that this fit our search. The first words “negation; in the negative; the arguments” were exactly what we thought of when we thought of the “cons” of a proposal. As we continued to read, we were surprised to see “mainly in pro and con.” I paused to think aloud again. “So this use of <con> to mean something negative is mainly used in the phrase pro and con. Interesting! And look! It’s been around since the 1570’s! Isn’t it surprising that this phrase is that old?” But little did we know that the most interesting part was yet to come. The very next words told us that <con> was indeed a clip. It was a clip of contra “against.”
Before we used the link to find out more about <contra>, we finished reading the entry and saw the direction to compare <con> with <pro>. We decided we would come back and do that after we looked at <contra>.
What we found at the entry for <contra> was that this is a free base with a denotation of “against; on the opposite side.” What really caught my eye was the list of related words. I chose three to talk about, thinking that those three might be familiar to my students. The first was <contradict>. I explained that the bound base was <dict> “say.” The example I used was, “If I were to say that today was Friday and someone were to say it was Thursday, I might tell them not to contradict me.”
The second word was <controversy>. To illustrate this, I brought up the current issue of climate change. I told them that this is a controversial issue because some people believe it is a problem and some people have the opposite view. They do not believe it is a problem. Since both sides are feeling strongly, this becomes a controversial issue.
The last word we spoke about was <contrast>. A student shared that when we point out contrasts we are pointing out differences. Great! But here was an opportunity I was not going to miss. “Does anyone have a hypothesis about what the word sum for <contrast> might be? Think about the entry we are looking at.
A student raised his hand with movements of urgency. “<contra + st>!” Eyes lit up everywhere.
I suggested we look at the entry for <contrast> to see if we could support this hypothesis with evidence. Sure enough! This word is from Latin contra “against” and Latin stare “stand.” How cool that we found another word with an <st> base already! It was great to be able to reinforce how I knew that the base was <st>.
It was time now to go find out about <pro>. I took them back to the Etymonline entry for <con>. I wanted to point out something. Right behind the link to “Compare pro,” there was a set of parentheses with (n.2). I asked, “What do you supposed that means?” The silence that followed made me glad I had asked. It is opportunities like these where I can make their individual visits to Etymonline more productive. I asked if anyone ever noticed that sometimes a word is listed twice in a dictionary because it has two different meanings. Many had. That was enough to trigger some understanding that (n.2) meant that <pro> is a noun and we would be looking for the second entry.
Even with pointing out that we would be looking for the second entry, several students shouted out that <pro> was a clip of <professional>. So we read together the second entry and realized that “a consideration or argument in favor” is the sense we use in the phrase pros and cons. Further in the entry we found corroboration that pro and con is short for pro and contra “for and against.” We even noted the Latin spelling (pro et contra).
I ended our discussion by sincerely thanking the student who had brought the phrase pros and cons to our attention. What a delight to find out this information about it! At first we wondered if <pro> was a clip of either proactive or proficient, but we found out that it wasn’t a clip at all. Instead, <con> was a clip of <contra>. We now understand <pro> to mean an argument in favor of something and <con> to mean an argument against something. And yes, some may have had a sense of that before we started, but I do believe there is a difference between knowing something superficially and knowing something in a way that it didn’t before.
Within 24 hours of this discussion, three more word quandaries appeared on our Wonder Wall:
– Is influence related to influenza?
-Why is there a <u> in some spellings of <color>?
-What does “hemmed and hawed” mean?
Looks like I won’t ever have to wonder what we should talk about next! These students are in orthographic orbit!
There are so many interesting articles I’ve read in my life. So many books I’ve picked up that seemed like something I’d be curious about. So many assigned readings that I dutifully read. But there were words I skipped over in those articles, in those books, in those assigned readings. I knew I was doing it. But why? I skipped over words that looked so foreign to me that I just knew they were meant for scientist eyes only or professionals in a specific field. I couldn’t imagine they were meant for a regular kind of reader like myself. But I don’t skip those words anymore. And my students don’t have to skip words like that anymore either. We know where to look and what to look for! We know to seek out the structure of the word and then to find out how each morpheme contributes to the meaning of the word. We are gaining access to all sorts of words we used to skip over! Let me illustrate what I mean.
A brown marmorated stink bug hitched a ride on my dog the other morning. Once the stink bug was safely in our home, he jumped ship and proceeded to make its way across the floor. My husband, a retired entomologist (do you ever really retire from this?), carefully scooped up the stink bug and called me from the other room. After taking a close look, he handed the stink bug to me and I took it outside and set it free. (That’s what happens at the home of this retired entomologist – all bugs venturing in from the great outdoors are returned to the great outdoors!) While I was gone, my husband was busy online, looking for a picture and a bit of information about this bug. (That’s another thing my scientist husband does – verify his identification of any bug he comes across!)
It’s actually quite a coincidence that he found this particular stink bug. Just a few days earlier I had been staying with a friend a few states to the east. We were sitting on her deck when the very same kind of stink bug landed on the table. “Those things are such a nuisance!” she said. “They collect on the back of the house and garage and are so hard to control!” When I mentioned this to my husband, he said that he had seen quite a few in our neighborhood as well. Well I now knew that to be true!
So here it is. The brown marmorated stink bug. That is its common name. Its scientific name is Halyomorpha halys. As far as the rest of its scientific classification, it belongs to the Class Insecta, the Order Hemiptera, and the Family Pentatomidae. Apparently it was accidentally brought to the U.S. from either Taiwan, Korea, China or Japan. (It probably got here by hitching a ride the same way the one we saw today hitched a ride into the house.) The distressing news is that this species of stink bug is invasive. It is so adept at hitching rides, that not only is it spreading on each coast of the U.S., it is appearing in countries around the world and is therefore having a global impact! The problem with this particular stinkbug is that it wreaks havoc on tree fruits and vegetables as they are developing. Not only are the costs because of crop damage immense, the cost for control of this stinkbug are immense as well. People often find the brown marmorated stink bug around their houses or outbuildings in the fall because it is looking for a place to overwinter. If you see these bugs around your outside walls, you’ll know what they are up to!
So why am I sharing this information? What relevance does it have to what many of us do with children every day? Well, as I was reading this information, certain words were popping out at me – words that not long ago I would have skipped over, not recognizing their significance to my overall understanding. Maybe my students do the same kind of skipping words. Maybe yours do too. Here’s something we can do to reduce that urge. In the same way I will point out the words I might have once skipped over, we can model and encourage our students to do the following instead.
1. Underline words that you are unfamiliar with. Think about each one. Is there anything you DO know about this word?
Some words I would pick out of the above information would be <marmorated>, <Halyomorpha>, <Hemiptera>, <Pentatomidae>, <wreaks>, and <havoc>. Even though I know what it means when something “wreaks havoc” on something else, I am now curious to know more about these two words.
The first one that I focused on was <marmorated>. What is that? If brown is an adjective here, then <marmorated> is most likely an adjective as well. But what does it mean? Looking in a dictionary seems a logical next step. But these days there’s a bit of fun I like to have first. I like to hypothesize the word’s structure.
The word <Halyomorpha> is this bug’s genus name. But it wasn’t randomly chosen. I know that. When examining unfamiliar organisms, scientists refer to the classification system. If the organism is truly one that hasn’t yet been identified and named, the scientists does so. There are some criteria the scientist follows, so I know it is not random. I want to understand more about the sense and meaning its morphemes contribute to the finished word. At first glance, I’m wondering if the second base is <morph> and has to do with shape or form.
The word <Hemiptera> refers to the Order this bug belongs to (as far as its scientific classification). I have looked at this word before. I recognize the second base as <pter> “winged,” and the first base as <hemi> “half.” I want to review these and remind myself what “half-winged” has to do with stink bugs.
The word <Pentatomidae> is the stink bug’s Family name (again, as far as its scientific classification). I am immediately wondering if the <penta> is the same <penta> we see in <pentagon> and is referring to five. I also have a suspicion about the <tome>. If it is the same <tome> that is in <entomology>, then it has something to do with cut or section.
The word <wreaks> is a word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “bringing about.” I have it on my list because I’m interested in its history.
The word <havoc> is another word I know the meaning of. It has to do with “a mess, a calamity.” I have it on my list because it doesn’t feel like a native English word to me. I’m curious about its origins.
2. Write a word sum hypothesis and then begin researching. Perhaps it will be helpful to find some etymological information about it. Perhaps looking up the word in a modern day dictionary will be helpful as it will help you know if you are on the right track as you search for the ancestor of each base.
My first thought is to hypothesize the structure of an unknown word. By the end of the year, this first step becomes a favorite activity of my students – thinking about and making a hypothesis. In this word, it might be logical to identify the <-ed> and <-ate> as suffixes. When I do this, I have a better idea of how to find this word at Etymonline if the word (spelled as I found it) does not appear there. My hypothesis would be <marmor + ate/ + ed –> marmorated>.
My next step is to look at Etymonline. The word <marmorated> is not listed. I remove the <-ed> suffix and search for <marmorate>. It is not listed either. I start typing m.a.r.m.o.r.a. … and <marmoreal> appears as a suggestion. I search for that, thinking that this word shares my hypothesized base. I find the entry:
I was curious about other words we use that might have this same base. I looked at Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher, but didn’t have much luck. I knew my next place had to be the Oxford English Dictionary. I love that resource because it lists words that have existed but are not necessarily being used anymore. And sure enough, there are a number of entries related to <marmor>. The oldest (c. 1480 and now obsolete) is marmor “marble.” The most recent (1948) is marmorealize. It is used when something should be immortalized – as it might be with a marble statue or marble inscription. The OED identifies this word as one used very infrequently, so it would be no surprise if you’ve never heard of it. In fact, it is suggested that this word might have been spelled to resemble the structure of memorialized, but never caught on the way memorialized has.
I found 12 entries related to <marmor>! Two other interesting words were marmoraceous and marmotinto. I like marmoraceous because, well, it’s fun to say! I can easily imagine how it could be used. I might go tell a friend that a stone I found on the beach was marmoraceous (resembling marble). I like marmotinto because I discovered that it was a decorative art. It was coined in 1844 but has since become obsolete – a lost art form. “A decorative process in which sand of various colours is distributed in marbled patterns on a surface and fixed, and perhaps given a smooth finish, with gum.” I found the pictures below at Wikimedia Commons. If you are interested, there were a few more there as well.
“The Hermit”(59cms by 44cms) is a Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel(1762-1830), probably an early work by this Georgian sand artist using a mix of white lead and gum arabic to stick the sand to the baseboard – hence the blackened colours of the background. Collection: Brian Pike, sandpainter.
Picture of Balmoral castle using the marmotinto style, the art of creating pictures using coloured sand or marble dust.
Here’s something cool. As I was looking to see if I could find what <Halyomorpha> denotes, I found an article at Bug Guide called, “Halyomorpha halys (Stal) (Heteroptera: Pentatomidae): A polyphagous plant pest from Asia newly detected in North America by Hoebeke, E.R. and M.E. Carter. 2003. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 105: 225-237.” What I think is particularly cool is the word phrase “polyphagus plant pest” in the article title. The word <polyphagus> is another one of those words that is easy to skip. But it doesn’t have to be. The first morpheme <poly> is the Hellenic form for “many” (as opposed to Latin <multi> “many”). The second base <phage> has a denotation of “eat.” We see it in the word <esophagus> “the passage that carries and eats”, <coprophagy> “eats feces,” <lotophagi> “lotus eaters,” and anthropophagous “cannibal, man-eater.” Phew! Not necessarily a discuss-over-dinner kind of a list, but still interesting! To get back to the word <polyphagus> in the phrase “polyphagous plant pest,” we can see that this stink bug is a pest because it eats many kinds of plants instead of just one. That makes it harder to control. Understanding <polyphagous> enriches what we understand about this stink bug’s diet!
So back to my search for what <Halyomorpha> means. This one stumped me. I could find a lot of references to this insect genus name, but I was not able to find a source that defined it. I still thought that the <morph> part had to do with a shape or form. That would make sense. But I couldn’t find <haly> or <halys> (the species name) in any dictionary. If I googled either one, the entries took me back to information about this insect. It was when I was at a site that listed all of the different species of the Halyomorpha that it hit me. I noticed that different species of these stink bugs were different colors. So I thought to myself that if the colors changed among the different species, what didn’t? What did all of these species have in common? That was when the word <halitosis> popped in my head. Whoa! Could the <hal> in <Halyomorpha> be the same <hal> we see in <halitosis> “bad breath” and be representing the ‘stink’ in stink bug? That sure seemed logical!
I found the Latin verb halare “be fragrant, emit vapor.” It seems so obvious. I know that this word could be a hybrid word, meaning that the two bases are from two different languages. In this case, <hal> is from Latin and <morph> is from Greek. But I am nagged by the <y> that follows the <hal>. Is it part of the base? If it is, have I found the right base? If it’s not, why is it there? I went to my copy of Lewis and Short to find more information about halare. As I expected, it means to emit vapor or fragrance. I kept looking through the lemmas, searching for <haly>. I found <Halys>, which is the species name of this stink bug. I was interested to know more about it as well and its relationship to the genus name Halyomorpha. It seems that Halys was a river in Asia Minor – now known as the Kisil-Irmak. It was also a man’s surname. The first entry for Halys wasn’t very helpful, but the second one gave me pause for thought. Scientists name things after themselves all the time. Perhaps this genus and species is named for the scientist who first identified and named it! Maybe that’s why I am having such a difficult time finding information on the etymology of this word!
For now, I am willing to say that I have two hypotheses. One is that the <hal> in Halyomorpha is from Latin halare “be fragrant, emit vapor”, and the <morph> is from Greek morphē “shape, form.” This makes sense to me. The other is that the <haly> in Halyomorpha is the surname of the scientist who first identified and named this insect. This also makes sense to me. The important thing here is that I have not closed the book on this word. I will continue to be interested in it, knowing that there is evidence out there that I have not yet seen, and when it comes my way I will be ready for it! In a very big way I am delighted that I did not find the evidence that supported my thinking with this word. This kind of thing can happen. It reminds me of what I often say to my students, “Just because I don’t know why this word is spelled the way it is, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. It just means I haven’t found the right evidence yet.” There’s no need to get frustrated or to get mad at the word and call it something offensive such as “irregular or misbehaving.” Instead, I get to keep my thinking on it open. I get to keep it on my radar so to speak.
As I mentioned earlier, I have looked at this insect name before. I know that <Hemiptera> literally means “half wing.” In this situation that means that part of the wing is membranous and the other half of the wing is not – it is leathery. The first part of this word is <hemi> and means half. You have probably seen it in the word hemisphere, which means “half a sphere.” The second part of this word is <pter> which means “winged.” You have no doubt seen it in the words pterodactyl and helicopter (although you may not have recognized it in helicopter).
I found the following information at ThoughtCo. The <penta> in this word is from Greek pente “five,” and the <tome> in this word is from Greek tomos “section.” Cool. Here is the evidence to support what I was first thinking about this word. I’ve seen <penta> in words like pentagon (five angles) and pentathlon (athletic race with five events). I remember seeing <tome> in words like entomology (because of distinct body parts, it looks like they have been “cut in” between each section) and atom, which means “not cut” (the smallest particle that cannot be cut further and still have the qualities of that element).
According to ThoughtCo., scientists disagree as to why this particular insect is classified as Pentatomidae. Some say it is because its antennae are divided into five sections. Others say it is because of the body shape of the insect – that it has five sections. Looking at the stink bug, they both make sense to me!
According to Etymonline, the verb <wreak> is from Old English wrecan (c 725) and at that time was used to mean “avenge, drive out, punish.” The sense of “inflict, cause damage or destruction is from 1817. A rarely used related word is wreaker. That, of course, is the person who does the wreaking. Someone who is wreakful is someone who desires revenge in a situation. Another rarely used word is wreakless. Someone who is wreakless is unavenged or unpunished.
Once again, Etymonline reveals some fascinating information! This word was originally part of the expression cry havoc, which meant “give the signal to pillage!” Now if you’re like me, you want a clearer idea of what it means to pillage. In the 14 c. it was used to mean “plunder, loot, ill-treat.” So havoc was the signal given to the soldiers to seize the plunder. Can’t you almost hear the cry and picture the frenzy that would follow?
After checking with the OED, I found out that the sense of pillage and plunder has slowly been replaced with the sense of “destructive devastation,” and in a weaker sense, “disorder and disarray.”
3. Sit back and think about what you now understand better about what you were reading and also what you love about investigating words.
Let’s begin with what I better understand about the marmorated stink bug. If I were to describe it, I would not hesitate to use the word marmorated, knowing that it refers to the marbled pattern on the insect. I can picture the insect’s back having no distinct repeatable pattern, just as marble has no distinct repeatable pattern. It belongs to the Hemiptera Order and the Pentatomidea Family. If I know that, I also know that it has wings that are half leathery and half membranous. I also know that this insect has five segments on its antennae and five segments on its back (which is shaped like a shield). I know that it is a polyphagous insect, meaning that it feeds on several different kinds of plants. That, of course, makes it harder to control. It’s damage is widespread in a given area, and this insect is reproducing and enlarging its areas faster than we’d like. In other words, it’s invasive. When it is described as wreaking havoc on fruit and vegetable plants, that means that these bugs are destructive and devastate the fruit and vegetable crops. The harvest is compromised greatly and the financial loss to the grower is huge. It may be named (Halyomorpha Halys) because of the bad fragrance it gives off, but that is just one theory I have. It may also be named after the scientist who first identified it.
Isn’t it amazing that when we pull a word out of context to give it a closer look, we can’t help but understand the context better?
Now let’s take a moment to think about how joyous it is that skipping words in a passage is no longer something anyone need do. I can so clearly remember the days when students were asked to look up the words they didn’t recognize in a text. Of course, they pretended they knew them so that they wouldn’t have to struggle to find the word in the dictionary. “Please, Mrs. Steven, just tell me what the word means. Don’t make me look it up! Please!” If I turned them down, I would find some students copying the papers of other students. Using the dictionary was a task that wasn’t fun – especially if you couldn’t remember the spelling of the word! But think about it. All the students were doing was copying down some definition that didn’t make sense to them. They copied it because they were asked to. In many cases, they didn’t read it as they copied, and they certainly wouldn’t have understood it if they had. This was busy work to them. Very few learned what words meant and how to use them by doing this.
With the kind of word inquiry we do now, the students find out so much more than just a definition. The goal is to find out the word’s structure and its story, and that is what the students find interesting. When they are engaged and interested in the research, it is not busy work. The dictionaries in my room have become dog-eared. I couldn’t be happier about it. They are used everyday by many students. Because the students know what they are looking for and why they need it, they willingly use it as part of their research. Imagine all the reading that is happening during this research!
Another wonderful thing that happened during this inquiry is that I couldn’t find a definitive explanation for the word <Halyomorpha>. When teachers are beginning this work in their classrooms, it is one of the things they fear most. “What if I can’t explain a spelling? What if I don’t understand what’s going on with a spelling?” When this happens, you model for your students what to do. You find what you can and make whatever observations you can. You make a hypothesis or two and then put it aside. It is a far better idea to teach students to go as far as they can based on the evidence collected, than it is to allow them to make wild guesses based on their hunches. Hunches and skipping words are a thing of the past. Research, hypotheses, collecting evidence, and making observations are what leads to understanding in the present.
Yet another satisfying aspect of this work is the way you inquire into one word, but learn several others along the way. We are always stretching our understanding and broadening the sense we have of a base element. If I hadn’t been investigating Halyomorpha, I wouldn’t have run across polyphagous, which I was able to connect to esophagus and coprophagy. (I once had a dog who ate her feces. Gross!) I also made connections to pentagon, pentathlon, entomology, and atom by looking closer at Pentatomidae. And let’s not forget the beautiful and intriguing art pictures made with sand and marble dust! I appreciate knowing that art form existed. It must have taken a long time to complete one of those and to keep the grains of sand and marble dust from mixing!
Say you did this with a student. Say they picked out some words from the text and with your guidance did what I have done here in these three steps. When finished, you place the list of words in front of them and have the student explain the text again, including their newfound understanding of each of the words.
The students were not quite seated before the whispering began.
“Yeah. Go ahead, Ben. Ask her.”
“I’ll ask if you don’t want to!”
“No, Ben should be the one to ask. He’s the one who brought it up to begin with.”
As you can imagine, my interest was piqued. I looked at Ben whose cheeks were bright red. “Ben? Do you have a question for me?”
“Yes. Do you think <squad> is related to <quad>?”
I hope you can picture just how big my smile was at that moment! This was the first orthographic question of the year that was inspired by something happening outside of our classroom! I was delighted, and I hoped my smile conveyed that! “What a great question! Tell me more. What were you talking about when this question came up?”
Ben began by explaining that in math class they were discussing polygons. Specifically they were talking about shape families. When they got to quadrilaterals, the teacher asked if students knew any other words with <quad>. As students named words, it was the consensus that words with <quad> have something to do with “four.” When Ben asked whether or not <squad> was related to <quad>, the teacher suggested they bring that question to me. Perfect!
The first thing we did was to recreate the list of words the students had thought of earlier in math. They included:
Then I asked, what is the spelling they have in common? What specific string of letters do you see in each and every word?
The first response was <quad> (no doubt because that was what they had been talking about earlier). I asked them to look again and more carefully. That was when several hands shot up at once. “I see q-u-a-d-r!”
Great! Now I underlined the <quadr> in each word so we could look at the rest of each word.
Before I could even ask a question about this word, a student raised their hand to say, “The <i> could be a connecting vowel!” Awesome! I didn’t expect that, but it is true! It could be! Next I asked if anyone recognized any suffixes. Someone called out <er> and <al>. Great! Those might indeed be suffixes. They often are. (Notice that instead of saying, “You’re right,” or “Sorry, you’re wrong,” I’m using words like “might” and “could.” At this point we are doing some out-loud thinking about this word. We will consult a resource when we have had a chance to think through our observations.)
At this point I asked if anyone knew what <lateral> meant. No one did. So I said, “What if I told you that a fish has lateral fins? Does that help?”
There was a moment of hesitation as students mulled over this idea. Then someone said, “Side fins?”
“Yes! Do those of you who love to play football know what a lateral throw is?”
“Yes. It’s when you throw the ball in a backwards or sideways direction.”
“Right. So we’re seeing a sense of “side” in both when we refer to a lateral fin and a lateral football throw. So now tell me what a quadrilateral is.”
Several students at once responded with, “Four sides.”
Right away I wanted someone to tell me what quadruplets were. Everyone seemed to know that it was when four babies were born in a single birth. None of us knew much about the <uplet> part, but had heard it as part of <triplet>, <quintuplet>, <sextuplet>, <septuplet>, and <octuplet>.
Having identified the base as <quadr> made the rest of this word recognizable. I could just ask, “What is a quadrangle?” And several students replied that it was a shape with four angles. Instead of quickly moving on, I wondered aloud whether a quadrangle and a quadrilateral could refer to the same shape. Hmmm. After a bit of thought, the students agreed that a shape with four angles would also have four sides, and a shape with four sides would also have four angles.
The students quickly named <million>, <billion> and <trillion> when thinking of the second part of this word. I went on to name <quintillion>, <sextillion>, <septillion>, <octillion>, <nonillion>, <decillion>, <undecillion>, and <dodecillion>. (I love knowing this list because I can see the same <sept> in <septillion> as I do in <September>, the same <oct> as in <October>, and the same <dec> as in <December>.)
The students weren’t as familiar with the use of this word. I explained that if an area were to be split into four areas, one of the areas would be called a quadrant.
At this point a boy raised his hand and stated, “I don’t think <squad> fits with these. None of these words begins with an <s>.”
I loved knowing that the original question sat in his head as we were discussing all the words with <quadr>. I replied by saying, “You might be right, Sam. But then again, we can often be surprised by what we find. I don’t know the answer, but it’s almost time to look.”
But there was still something the students were wondering about. “Isn’t quad a word all by itself?”
“Yes. I think you’re right. I wonder if it isn’t a clip of one of the words we’ve looked at.”
Then I went on to explain that there are other words that had been clipped from a longer version – words like auto from automobile and flu from influenza. This was the perfect time to go over to my desk and pull up Etymonline on the Smartboard. I looked up <quad>. The entry was very interesting. It seems that <quad> has been a shortening (or clip) of several longer words over the years. In 1820 it was a shortening of <quadrangle>, which at the time referred to a building on a college campus. In 1880 it was a shortening of <quadrat>. In 1896 it was a shortening of <quadruplet>. We were all fascinated to read that a quadruplet originally referred to a bicycle for four riders! It was only later on that it referred to four young at a single birth. Lastly, <quad> was a shortening of <quadraphonic> in 1970. I remember my older brother talking about wanting quad speakers to go with his stereo! One of the students brought up one other more recent use of <quad> as a clip. They mentioned quads as in leg muscles. We decided that in that sense, <quad> must be a clip of <quadriceps>. This is an example of a word that needs to be in a context in order for us to know what it is referring to.
Once we had looked at <quad>, it was time to look at <squad>. This was really fascinating! In 1640, this word was used to mean a small number of military men.” That was a familiar use of the word for everyone. It is kind of what we were expecting. As we read on, we noticed this word had been in French as esquade, Middle French as escadre, and Spanish as escuadra or Italian squadra where it meant literally “square.” Notice how the spelling in French, Middle French and Spanish began with <es> and the Italian spelling began with <s>. The next interesting information was this word was from Vulgar Latin (the Latin spoke by the everyday people) and possibly spelled (not for sure – notice the asterisk next to the spelling) *exquadra meaning “to square” from Latin ex “out” and quadrare “make square.” Ben, the boy who originally asked the question noticed the connection between a square and four right away. Another student pointed out the <quadr> spelling in the Latin word quadrare.
All in all, this glorious discussion took about 25 minutes. I enjoyed identifying what we knew already, and what things we could relate to other things without running immediately to a resource. There is such value in recognizing the connections one already knows. This is how the students will strengthen their confidence in their ability to connect one word to another.
What an opportunity to point out that both<quadr> and <squad> began in Latin, but had different journeys into Modern English. Both were used in French, but <squad> was also used in either Spanish or Italian and that different journey has been reflected in their spellings. It turns out that they ARE related! They are related etymologically, but because they do not share spelling, they are not morphologically related.
When we decide to explore any of the sciences, we expect to dive deep. We expect to examine what others have already discovered, we expect to find out things we didn’t know before, and we expect to be enlightened by those findings. If we are testing some established scientific principle or a student hypothesis about the way things work, we think like scientists. We follow some form of the Scientific Method. We do this so that some one else might repeat our experiment if they wanted and get the result we got. In other words, our results would be verifiable because our methods were consistent.
This same idea is at the very core of Structured Word Inquiry. It is inherent in its three basic principles.
Many people think they are “doing SWI” because they teach prefixes and suffixes, because they teach Greek and Latin roots, or because they have some information on a word’s etymology ready for their older students. If you are not treating word study as a science, you are not “doing SWI.” If you are using a boxed program, you are no doubt following someone else’s idea of what is appropriate for your students based merely on their age. How can that possibly reflect a student’s natural curiosity and support that student’s flow in thinking, questioning, proving/falsifying, and understanding? It can’t. It can’t because it cannot possibly follow all three principles of Structured Word Inquiry.
So what does it mean to treat spelling/word study as a science? How is that different from what is being done in other practices? What are those three principles and why are they so important?
Here they are. These are the three guiding principles of Structured Word Inquiry. They are something I keep in mind as I plan the starting point of each inquiry with my students. Just to be clear, these are not principles I thought of. These are the principles Dr. Peter Bowers developed as he was seeking to further define Structured Word Inquiry and what its implementation with students means exactly. I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘inquiry’ and even ‘structured’ is becoming part of more and more literacy programs. But what exactly do those words mean in those contexts? What do those words mean in the context of SWI? That is what Dr. Bowers set out to clarify with these principles.
The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
If you are not familiar with Structured Word Inquiry or where it started, I encourage you to visit Dr. Pete Bowers’ website. A much more thorough accounting, including links to research that supports SWI can be found here at WordWorksKingston. Structured Word Inquiry describes the instruction Dr. Bowers used when he ran a grade 4-5 morphological intervention with John Kirby in 2010. It is important to note that he was “using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction.” After running the intervention and writing about their findings, Dr. Bowers knew how important it would be to carefully describe the underlying and crucial supports of Structured Word Inquiry.
The three guiding principles are different than the four questions that guide an actual structured word inquiry. They are foundational. They must be adhered to in order to conduct a structured word inquiry. Without the principles, as I’ve said earlier, this is just another program that becomes automatic and routine over time when compared to the unpredictable discovery and inquisitive nature of true structured word inquiry.
This idea of treating spelling as a science probably sounds weird because we have been taught that there is nothing more to know about a word except how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means. You may be wondering what there is to investigate. What would we even be looking for? But here is where structured word inquiry differs from other programs or boxed kits. The point of structured word inquiry is to show the child how to use scientific rigor and resources to prove to themselves why words are spelled the way they are. You won’t find other approaches explaining the why. They may explain what is, but not WHY what is, is. That takes orthographic science!
Let’s take a closer look at each of these important principles.
1) The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
I remember reading this principle for the first time and thinking, “Whatever. How can that be?” I listened to and read everything else being presented to me and kind of ignored this principle. I ignored it because of the dissonance it created in my head. Thinking back on my own schooling, I recall all the time I spent memorizing a word’s spelling, all the time I spent looking up definitions of words, and finally, all the time I spent figuring out how to remember which word went with which definition. Now I was supposed to believe that the spelling of a word represents its meaning? “Whatever. How can that be?”
Fully believing in this principle has happened slowly for me because, well, old beliefs are sometimes embedded deeper than we think. Over and over I saw the proof, but still looked askance at this principle. How could it be true? Because I was wrangling with this principle, it was always on my mind. Without intentionally doing so, I began to collect my own bank of evidence.
What I thought I knew was that spelling was about pronunciation. I grew up being told to sound out words if I asked how they were spelled. As a teacher I’ve told hundreds of students to do the same. Sitting back and reflecting on all of the times a word couldn’t be successfully spelled in that manner – by sounding it out, was Exhibit A. If spelling was there to represent pronunciation, why were there so many exceptions – so many words that couldn’t be spelled correctly by being sounded out?
Exhibit B was the nagging sense of failure I felt in 18 years of teaching for not being able to provide my students with any real understanding about spelling. Every book I used, every piece of curricular material I was handed focused on spelling and its correlation to prominent vowel sounds in words. I always ended up saying, “No one knows why words are spelled the way they are. You’ll just have to memorize them.” Dictionaries were dreaded resources in my classroom. No one wanted to tackle one of those. Students begged me, “Just tell me how to spell it. Please?” When I asked colleagues for help, I was made to feel as if I was the problem – I wasn’t teaching the spelling curriculum as presented – with fidelity. But I read through the teaching guide many times. The understanding I longed for wasn’t there.
The third piece of evidence (Exhibit C) was something pointed out to me. (And ever since, I can’t un-see it). It was the fact that pronunciation in word families shifts all the time. Just think of how we pronounce courage and courageous; demonstrate and demonstrative; real and reality; heal and health; please and pleasure. If spelling was primarily supposed to help with pronunciation, why wasn’t each pair of these words spelled differently? A suffix was added and the pronunciation changed! Take note that the basic part of each word in these pairs is spelled the same regardless of that change in pronunciation. This particular exhibit of evidence is compelling to me. It reminds me of the genus and species names that scientists use. There are common names for most organisms on this earth, but those vary from location to location (kind of like accents and dialects with language). By using the genus and species name for an organism, scientists have a common language. They know which organism is being referred to with certainty. The fact that we don’t shift the spelling of a word every time we shift its pronunciation is heavy duty proof that the spelling represents something other than pronunciation. It represents the meaning that we (no matter where we live, no matter what our dialect or regional peculiarities) seek in order to communicate with one another.
Of course, there is more evidence out there. Exhibit D might be the Homophone Principle which states that when two words are pronounced the same but mean different things, wherever possible they will have different spellings to represent those different meanings. Think of the homophones blue and blew; right and write; flower and flour; see and sea; poor and pour. We recognize that although each set of words has the same pronunciation, the two words are not spelled alike to mark their different meanings! I’ll say that again. Their spelling indicates to the reader that they do not share meaning.
These days when I am explaining this principle to others, and they give me that look that I recognize as hesitance, I present the above evidence. Because it is the most compelling to me, I make sure to present what I have explained as Exhibit C. I use examples such as the word family for <sign>. There is the obvious lack of pronunciation of the <g> in family members <sign>, <assignment>, and <signer>, but then the <g> IS pronounced in <signature>, <designate>, and <signal>. Beyond that, the <s> has an unexpected pronunciation as /z/ in <design> and <designate>. Once more, the spelling is the consistent piece because it is representing the sense and meaning of the base! All of the words in this family have a sense and meaning of “a mark with some special importance.”
2) The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
The first time I read this principle I was ready to accept it. I was almost relieved. For years I had been hoping that English wasn’t as illogical and unpredictable as people kept saying (continue to say). You see, I love words. I always have. I just haven’t understood them in the way I do now. Now I have images and stories and depth and connections that I never had before. In the same way that I delight in turning that first page of a new book, I now delight in looking at a new word or finding out something new about an old word.
Knowing that English spelling is well-ordered and reliable enough to face the rigors of scientific investigation brings an amazing sense of calm and eagerness to my classroom. There is no dread in knowing we are studying words on a certain day. There is only joy and anticipation. The frustration and distress disappeared because the judgement regarding being right or wrong about a spelling disappeared. It may sound weird to hear me say this, but the focus with structured word inquiry isn’t completely on the spelling. As we are understanding the spelling, as we are seeing these reliable and well-ordered conventions of English spelling over and over, it feels to the student as if their spelling has significantly improved without them having to focus on it specifically. They are never asked to memorize the spelling of a word, yet they are able to spell words that they haven’t been able to spell before. For some it has felt effortless. That ability comes from the fact that they now understand the word’s spelling. In the past, when they have been asked to memorize spellings, there was no rhyme or reason for them. It was a string of letters. Words with several vowels were particularly hard because no one could satisfactorily explain their order.
An especially liberating truth inherent in this principle is that calling words irregular, oddball, tricky, devil or the like doesn’t make them so. Every time I hear someone call a word tricky or say something as ridiculous as “This word is misbehaving and needs to be put in jail,” I shake my head. Here we have adults who don’t understand the spelling of a certain word, making fun of the word for that. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t understand your spelling. It doesn’t fit what I’ve been taught about words.” So instead of questioning what they’ve been taught, they single out the word and call it names. I’ve been in the classroom a long time. Think about what some children do to other children who are in some way different than themselves. Instead of trying to understand the difference, one child makes fun of the other. Isn’t that just what is happening here?
3) Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
The idea of investigating words as a scientist might is so appealing to me! After all, I have organized our school’s fifth grade science fair for 25 years now. I know a thing or two about using a consistent framework for a scientific investigation. A scientist wouldn’t dream of drawing conclusions based on someone else’s say so. A scientist conducts their own research, and keeps careful notes to track their investigation. A scientist is thorough and looks at a problem from many angles, seeking to have a broad understanding before zeroing in on a specific aspect. By using the four questions of structured word inquiry, spelling scientists follow a similar deep dive to understand English spelling.
The importance of this principle must not be underestimated. If it is true that scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works, then I want my students to be able to use scientific inquiry to see it for themselves. I need to teach my students which tools to use and which questions to ask. They need to know how to use the relevant information in the resources to provide evidence to either support or falsify their hypotheses about English spelling. This is where boxed programs or scripted curriculums fall short. Completely and unfortunately short. The questions are already posed … by the creators of the program. The students are walked through the lessons and asked to answer questions they didn’t ask. Such programs are not designed to accommodate the unpredictability of a child’s path of thinking. Structured Word Inquiry on the other hand embraces and celebrates that unpredictability. Teachable moments present themselves every day and in meaningful ways. The students are engaged and fascinated because they are part of what drives the learning. They are not passive receivers of lessons who are told what to think and then given time to memorize things that don’t make sense to them.
A huge part of my learning community is my classroom. In this room I am a passionate learner. I think out loud at times to model the types of questions that might help my students during an inquiry. I guide the students in the right direction when I can see they are stuck. And as often as possible, I turn the “figuring-out part”, the “decision-making-based-on-the-evidence-collected part” of the investigation back on the students. The inquiries carried out by the students yield learning for all of us. When that happens, we all feel exhilarated.
Students find it refreshing that I don’t have a teacher manual and as a result, don’t always know the answers. I often tell them that my very favorite questions are the ones I can’t answer. In a very big way, it lifts the burden that most children feel about guessing what the teacher wants you to say in a given discussion. It lifts the burden of having to have a right answer when joining a discussion. Students no longer worry about being embarrassed for giving a wrong answer because if we use scientific inquiry, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no judgement attached to a thought shared. Instead, students propose hypotheses about word structure or other aspects of English spelling. There is only what we can prove, what we cannot prove, and what we can falsify. This is an amazing difference from what is experienced in other classrooms (from what was experienced in my own spelling classroom prior to 2012). It provides an atmosphere in which there is a willingness to participate and ask questions. You see, so much of the learning takes place during those classroom discussions and during presentations of a particular investigation. THAT is when information is settling and synthesizing with other information, forming or strengthening an existing understanding. For the last two years, this has been our classroom mantra:
When you are looking for answers, you are looking to settle your question. Once you find that answer, you are done with the question. You don’t go back and ask it again. You move on. This principle of using scientific inquiry demands that we not seek answers. We seek to understand something. The question remains open. Even when we are satisfied with our understanding, we are open to noticing something that will bring that question back to the foreground. We will reconsider what it is we understand and how the new information affects it. With other programs, children are filled with facts as if they are buckets. There is so much the student is asked to memorize whether it makes sense to them or not.
Structured Word Inquiry gives the student the consistent procedure, the framework of these principles, and the opportunity to see for themselves – to prove to themselves – to build that understanding for themselves. There is no program or approach or preset curriculum that can do that. This principle of using scientific inquiry is what sets Structured Word Inquiry apart. It is what disqualifies it from being called a program or an approach. It is simply scientific inquiry. It is the same scientific inquiry that led to us finding out the world is round. It is how we found out about gravity, germs, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, the mating dance of Sandhill cranes, the phases of the moon, the layers of the atmosphere, and the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle. Each discovery or understanding began with a question and a scientist who pursued it. And the pursuit was teeming with scientific thinking.
It is the way we can learn about English spelling too. Just make sure your toes are soundly buried in the sands of these three Structured Word Inquiry Principles before investigating anything.
I have read some entertaining alphabet books in my time. My favorites are the really old ones. The antique ones with the detailed drawings. But then again, I’ve also enjoyed the variety that has been available for a long time. There are alphabet books that specifically name flowers, ocean creatures, plants and animals. There are clever ones like Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers. Each letter has its own short story and some of those stories connect as you continue reading through the book. (I recently read this book to my granddaughter. It was definitely written with both of us in mind!)
There are alphabet books that aren’t really for children, but for adults like myself who are beginning to understand linguistics! One such book is An ABC for Baby Linguists by Michael Bernstein.
Recently I found yet another great alphabet book, … but it’s only great if you are willing to ignore some of the statements made by the authors.
What they have collected here is a thing of beauty and wonder, yet they label it as “the worst alphabet book ever.” The subtitle only makes their ignorance more obvious – “All the letters that misbehave and make words nearly impossible to pronounce.” See what I mean? How on earth can a letter misbehave? It’s an inanimate object! And for those who were once taught that letters can “say their name,” they can’t do that either. (I like to prove this to my students by writing down any old letter and then putting my ear right up to it. Then I wait. I wait for the thing that will never happen. The letter will never say its name nor any other letter’s name. The letter will never push, trip, or pull the hair of another letter. See? A letter will never misbehave either.)
A letter WILL however, represent something. If it is not a grapheme representing a phoneme in a word, it might be an orthographical marker. Either way, it has information to share. We are so conditioned (and incorrectly so) to believe that a letter’s only purpose is to “say” a sound, that we don’t even consider that there is more to know! But there is! And this book does a beautiful job of reminding us of that! Except …
The authors are painfully unaware of it. The idea they had in collecting these words is fabulous. The information they share about each word is interesting. Their conclusions about this collection are sad and feed into the collective ignorance about how our language really works. We don’t need more of that. What we need is to see this collection of words as an opportunity to understand our language better. To appreciate that our language is full of immigrants and each of those immigrant words enlarges us and completes us in a way. To appreciate that our language has a history and that in the same way I got my lack of height from my grandfather, so do words acquire and/or lose letters according to their family tree. These words connect our humanity across the world, but also across time.
Armed with my own take on this book, I read it to my students. They thoroughly enjoyed it. It IS unexpected, isn’t it? What we expect is “P is for pickle” or “P is for panda.” What we do not expect is to find the focus on the one letter in the word that is not pronounced. After all, alphabet books have a mission to help early readers understand letters better by giving examples of words that begin with that letter. In other words, words in which the first letter IS pronounced. I guess in that regard, this book misses that mark. But in my opinion, it hits a bigger mark that seems to be always missed.
The job of spelling is to represent meaning and NOT to represent pronunciation. I think that is the beauty of this book. It is best appreciated by people who know that P can be for pickle, panda, AND pterodactyl.
As we read the pages and flipped to the next, the anticipation of which word would represent each letter was kind of a sweet wait. Our minds raced ahead trying to guess. Once I finished reading it to the class, I thought it might be interesting to have some of the students find out more about some of what we saw in the book. The students were ahead of me with that thought.
“Mrs. Steven, can I investigate <pterodactyl>? I want to find out if there are other words with <pt>.”
“Can I borrow that book? I want to pick something I might like to investigate!”
And then they were off!
P is for Pterodactyl
Two boys (two different classes) asked to investigate <pterodactyl>. Let’s start with what Sam presented. He has a word sum right under the word <pterodactyl>. He identifies the first base <pter> as having a denotation of “wing” and the second base <dactyl> as having a denotation of “finger.” The <o> is a connecting vowel. All parts of this word are from Greek.
He also wrote the word in Greek with my help. I brought in my Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon and showed him how to look it up.
Many of the words that shared the <pter> base “winged” he found at the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). This is the first year my students have had access to the OED. They were able to find many related words by using this resource. The thing I asked them to keep in mind, though, was how recently the words they were finding were used. If the last time we have evidence of a word being used was 1672, it probably isn’t a word we will be using any time soon. Perhaps it would be better to stick with more commonly used relatives! This poster was created by Sam. What I love about it is the key at the bottom. Some words he marked as “interesting” and some he marked as “favorites.”
For example, one of Sam’s favorites was <pterostigma>.(Sixth from the bottom.) He has defined it as “a pigmented spot on the anterior margin of the wings of certain insects.” Here is a picture. The second base in this compound word is <stigma> and it has a denotation of “mark made on skin” often made with a tool, so something like a tattoo. I can certainly see why scientists named these spots in this way!
Another of Sam’s favorites was <pteranodon>. (Third from the top.) He has defined it as “a large tailless pterosaur of the family pteranodontidae.” Below is a composite cast of a pteranodon. The second part in this compound word is <anodon>. It has the Hellenic privative prefix <an-> that carries a sense of “without” and the Hellenic base <odon> “teeth.” Once again you can see that the scientists thought carefully as they named this flying reptile.
Mounted composite cast of Pteranodon longiceps (=P. ingens) at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Photo credit Matt Martyniuk henteeth.com
Sam loves to draw, and did a pretty great job with his pterosaur!
Now let’s look at Jude’s work.
Jude has his word sum up front along with the denotations for each base in this compound word. He wasn’t finding too many related words, so I sent him to a post I wrote previously that focused on <pter>. Find it HERE. In that post, I reflected on some insect names I learned when my husband was working on his masters in entomology. Quite a few of the insect Orders have <pter> as part of their name.
After Jude wrote word sums for the related words he collected, he created a matrix. Here is a larger version of it.
You’ll notice that there is an <o> connecting vowel used to connect two bases to form a compound word. I am noticing that the <dactyl> should be bolded to show it is a base and not a suffix. The <a> that is listed alone is NOT a connecting vowel. In the word <siphonaptera>, the <a> is a Hellenic privative prefix added to the base <pter> with a sense of “without.” You see, a siphonaptera is an insect that has siphoning mouth parts and is without wings. An example would be a flea.
Another related word that Jude found interesting was <iopterous> “violet wing.” The first base is from Greek ion “violet, violet color.” It is related to <iodine> which is an element on the periodic table and means “violet in appearance.”
Iodine is a violet vapor or blue-black solid. Matt Meadows/Getty Images
As you can see, even though both boys investigated the same word, they each found related words and learned things that the other hadn’t. This is one of the things I love about Structured Word Inquiry. There is no expected “complete” answer. There is only what you find based on the resources you use and the length of time you remain interested in the task. An answer key would stifle the curiosity and the drive.
One other important observation Jude made when we put both of these posters side by side was that when the <pter> was initial in the word, the <p> was not pronounced. Most of the related words listed on Sam’s poster had the <pter> base first. On Jude’s poster, the opposite was true. The <pter> was usually the second base, and in such words, both the <p> and <t> was pronounced. Interesting observation, am I right?
So what other interesting words in this book inspired investigations?
M is for Mnemonic
Danny asked to find out more about <mnemonic>. He was familiar with remembering all five of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), so he understood what mnemonic meant.
He read at Etymonline that this word was first attested in 1753, and that it has always had something to do with “aiding the memory.” He also read that it was from a Latinized form of Greek mnemonikos “of or pertaining to memory”, and before that it was from mneme “memory, remembrance.” That was helpful because as Danny collected related words, he noticed that although some had the <mnem> spelling, some had something different. Some had <mnes>.
He sorted the words he found into the two lists and then looked up <amnesia>. He found out that this word was coined from the Greek amnesia “forgetfulness.” You see the <a> brings a sense of “without,” so to have amnesia is to be without memory. (There’s that same Hellenic privative <a>!) You’ll notice that same <a> in <amnemonic> on his poster. I’m guessing that he found that related word at the OED because it is not used much any more. Since it means the same thing as amnesia, there must not have been a need for both words and amnesia became the more commonly used word.
Another interesting word Danny found that has that same <a> is <amnesty>. This word was first attested in 1570 and was used to mean “a ruling authority’s pardon of past offenses.” In other words, when someone is granted amnesty, the party granting it is saying they will not remember your past offenses.
The big thing that Danny couldn’t help but notice was that when <mn> was initial in a word, only the <n> was pronounced. But when the <a> was initial in the word, both the <m> and the <n> were pronounced. It’s the same thing that happened with the <pt> in pterodactyl and helicopter!
P is for Pneumonia
Alright, you got me. There weren’t two “P is for …” pages. But once I saw what Danny was discovering, I thought of <pneumonia> and the <p> that isn’t pronounced and is also followed by an <n>. The next person to come to my desk looking for a new project was Cally, so I asked her if she’d like to investigate words that begin with <pn>. She was excited!
As Cally collected words, she noticed that there was a common sense of “lungs, breath, wind” among them. She was familiar with <pneumonia> and knew it was a sickness that was centered in the lungs. It definitely interferes with breathing as the air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and fluid filled.
When I saw she had the word <pneumatic> on her list, I asked her to google “pneumatic drill.” She did, and immediately understood what it had to do with air. She watched a few Youtube videos in which someone was demonstrating how a pneumatic drill works. I asked her to pick one out that we could show the class. She chose this one. It does a great job in explaining how the compressed air is used to move the drill bit up and down.
Another word that Cally found pretty fascinating was <pneobiognosis>. I found this entry in An Illustrated Dictionary of Medicine, Biology, and Allied Sciences by George Milbry Gould. Notice how the entry names the three stems used to create this word. The first is πνειν (transcribed as pnein) and has a denotation of “to breathe.” The second is βιος (transcribed as bios) and has a denotation of “life.” The last is γνωσις (transcried as gnosis) and has a denotation of “knowledge.” But what does the word mean? How do those denotations combine to make a word’s meaning?
Next we went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Cally read that this word is pretty rare. It was first attested in 1890, so it’s not that old. I guess that there are other words we use more often to represent this meaning. You see this word was created to describe a situation in which a newborn has died and there is an examination of the lungs and chest to see whether or not the baby had ever breathed. So did it die before or after birth? While it was kind of a sad thing to think about, it was interesting to Cally to see bases she knew (<bi> and <pne(u)>) used in an unfamiliar word like this one.
When I saw the spelling of another word in Cally’s notebook (pneumatique), I saw an opportunity to point out something to her. Together we googled this word. Here is the first entry that popped up. There were several others on the same page written in French as well. As you can imagine, Cally wondered why the entry was in French.
“Perhaps Google recognized this word as a French word,” I responded. “I have a suspicion it is the spelling of the suffix here that is giving this word a French identity.”
So we looked at the OED. The entry there listed this word as French. It was defined as “a letter or message sent by a pneumatic post system in Paris.” My first reaction was to wonder aloud if this is the system we see at our local bank. We pull up in our car, put our deposit slip in a container that sits in a tube and then watch as the container is sucked up the tube and into the bank. Cally had seen the same thing and agreed that it was a pneumatic system for transporting money or paper. But then I noticed something else.
“Cally. Look at the use of the <-ic> suffix on <pneumatic> in the definition. Let’s find out more about that suffix and it’s connection to <-ique>.”
I sent Cally to Etymonline to search for <-ic>. This is what we found:
“Oh! These two spellings are the same suffix! Cool!”
“Yes. Sometimes it is more common to use one over the other. In the U.S., we spell this word with an <-ic> more often than an <-ique>, but they are both acceptable.”
Because writing this post is such a reflective process, sometimes I think of questions as I am writing that I didn’t think of in the moment. Right now I am wondering about the words <critic> and <critique>. There is not just a suffix spelling difference with these two words. There is a meaning difference as well. They are obviously morphological relatives with a common denotation, but the <-ic> is an agent suffix in this case whereas that is not the case with the use of the <-ique>. In other words, they are not interchangeable because each brings a different sense to the overall meaning of the word. The same applies to the words <mystic> and <mystique>. But then there is <communique>. We switch to the <-ic> suffix when we add the <-ate> suffix, as in <communicate>. It seems that in some words these two suffixes are interchangeable, and in some word families they are but not strictly. In yet other word families they may not be at all. Hmmmm. This sounds like a great investigation for one of my students next year!
One last word that intrigued Cally was a very long one. It was <pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis>! After sending Cally to several dictionaries, we came to the conclusion that there is not a consensus on this word’s history. At Etymonline it is mentioned that it may have been invented by seventh grade students in Norfolk, Virginia. At Lexico Dictionary there is mention of it being created in the 1930’s and invented “(probably by Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers’ League) in imitation of very long medical terms.” All sources do agreed that this word describes a lung disease from breathing in very fine ash or dust.
P is for Psychic Pterodactyl
I know, I know. This is the third investigation regarding an initial <p> that can be unpronounced in a word. But when I read aloud the “P is for Pterodactyl” page in the book, the pterodactyl was indeed described as psychic which immediately stirred up Samantha’s curiosity. I sent her to find some words with an initial <ps> where the <p> was not pronounced. Look at what she found!
Samantha grouped the words she found by their spelling. One of the bases she noticed was <psyche> “soul, spirit, mind.” In her left hand list, you’ll see the words she found. You will also notice that she wrote the denotation of the base as if it were the definition of the word. That’s not very helpful. All of the words have something to do with “soul, mind, spirit of life,” but they aren’t synonyms. The affixes and bases that combine with the target base provide variations to the overall meaning of the word.
For instance, the first word she has listed is <psychologist>. The word sum would be <psyche/ + o + loge/ + ist>. This is a compound word with a second base denoting “study” followed by an agent suffix indicating a person. A psychologist then, is a person who studies the “soul, mind, spirit of life.” A more current definition according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who has, or claims to have, insight into the motivation of human behavior.” What the bases and affixes add to the overall meaning of the word is important!
Another on that list is <psychosis>. I’m sure the ending on this word feels familiar. We see it in halitosis, neurosis, osteoporosis, fibrosis, and mononucleosis. Notice anything about all of those? Yup. They all have something to do with a medical condition. That is what the <-osis> brings to the word. Someone with psychosis would have a disordered mental state, usually involving a loss of contact with reality (from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary).
The last word in that list is pretty interesting as well. The word <psychedelic> is a word I heard a lot when I was young. Bright flowy colors moving on a wall were psychedelic. Most art images reminded me of the thoughts and feelings that can spill out of our heads. The colors were always bright. I was a little too young to understand the drug culture of the times. But when I look at the word <psychedelic> now, I am intrigued by what the rest of the word means. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) lists it as being from Ancient Greek ψυχή (transcribed as psyche) and Greek δηλουν (transcribed as deloun “make visible, reveal”). In combination, this word describes the effects of mind altering drugs, and the idea that the drugs made the soul and mind visible.
Love Peter Max 1969; c. Peter Max, Fair Use
Notice that in Greek, the letter that was later transcribed into Latin as <ps> was ψ “psi.” The Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ps>. In Greek, both the <p> and the <s> were pronounced. In the same base we also see the Greek letter χ “chi.” Again, the Romans didn’t have a letter to represent that pronunciation, so they transcribed it as <ch>. The pronunciation was /kh/. You may not recognize the Greek letter, but you’ll recognize the <ch> spelling with the modern /k/ pronunciation in words like chemistry, chorus, and school.
The next group that Samantha found had a base of <pseud> “false.” She did a much better job of defining the words on this list. The first word on this list is <pseudonymous>. This is a compound word. The word sum would be <pseud + onym + ous>. The second base <onym> is Greek for “name.” I see that at Etymonline the word <pseudonym> is a back formation of <pseudonymous> which is originally from Ancient Greek ψευδώνυμος “under a false name, falsely named.” This <onym> base is present in many commonly used words like synonym “same sense or name,” antonym “opposite name,” eponym” named after a person, “toponym” named after a place, “acronym” formed from first letters of words,” and my favorite, anonymous “without a name”. (There’s the same Hellenic privative prefix <an> that we saw in Sam’s investigation of <pteranodon>, in Jude’s investigation of <siphonaptera>, and in Danny’s investigation of <amnesia> and <amnesty>.)
One last word that is interesting is <pseudepigrapha>. What I like about this word is that it is proof that the <o> we see in all the other words Samantha listed is not part of the base – it is a connecting vowel! What we have here is a compound word made up of <pseud> “false” and <epigrapha> “write on.” If we look closer at the second base we see <epi> “on” and <grapha> “write.” This completed word was formed in Modern Latin, which means it was purposely put together using classical stems. This word was coined in 1842 “ascription of false authorship to a book,” according to Etymonline.
**** Final Thoughts
I could continue. Another student looked at <qu> because of the page that started, “Q is for quinoa.” This person didn’t find other words in which the <qu> was pronounced as it is in <quinoa>, but still the investigation was fruitful. Check out the two lists this student created and what was noticed. This person noticed that many words with a <qu> has something to do with four. The second list were words that had something to do with making noise.
Here’s what Etymonline has to say about <quinoa>:
Some of the words in this book are loan words from different languages, but many are not. All have delightful tales to tell. I challenge you to look up the story of why <czar> is spelled that way. It is not the Russian spelling. Why not? Etymonline has the story. Then there is <gnocci> and <gnomes>. Did you know that the first garden gnomes were imported to England from Germany in the late 1860’s? And what about <heir>, <honest> and <herbal>? Instead of “the <h> is misbehaving,” why not seek understanding? Why not find out where this word came from and how its etymology might very well hold some clues to its spelling. I see the possibility of some fascinating stories and some interesting word families.
So let’s go back to the authors assertion that these words and letters are misbehaving and not following the rules. I say it is not the letters who are misbehaving. I say it is the rules. Who set such a narrow view of words anyway? Why are so many bamboozled into thinking that spelling is solely to represent sound? This book proves that that notion couldn’t be further from the truth! This book proves how lost we can get when we ignore etymology!
For the last three weeks, we’ve gotten busy with two different writing projects that are taking longer than I anticipated. (Isn’t that always the way?) We’ve also been working on word investigations. My students are enjoying these projects. The word investigation-type projects are ongoing. Whenever someone finishes a required project (such as one of the two current writings or their current word investigation) they bring their orthography notebook to my desk and I get them started on a new project. It’s been my way of making good use of every spare moment we have together. What I didn’t realize was that the students actually love knowing there is always a next project, and that they don’t have to wait for everyone in the room to complete a project before they can start a new one.
I love it too. Everyone isn’t looking at the same thing at the same time, so when the students share their findings with the class, we have discussions about conventions and concepts that we circle back to when a group working on a similar investigation is sharing what they found. There has been just enough time between the presentations to let things sink in and in that way, prepare the students to hear similar information and ask great questions.
So we’ve been splitting our time between writing (and all that it encompasses), investigating (looking at words, graphemes and the modern bases that derived from Latin verbs), and moving ahead in our understanding of the hydrosphere (watching and discussing videos). I really thought I was checking off all the boxes for the curriculum I teach. And then several students asked this question:
“Mrs. Steven, do you think we can analyze a sentence today?”
It had been almost two weeks since we last analyzed a sentence. I was really surprised (and quite happy) to hear that it was something the students were missing! So I said, “Sure!” We must keep our students happy, right?
The basic plan I follow for teaching grammar comes from the mind of Michael Clay Thompson. I have been fortunate enough to attend several workshops with him and just about a year ago I took his online Grammar for Adults course. I use his book Grammar Voyage as a reference and have created my own interactive book to use with my students. Using ideas and materials by Michael Clay Thompson has changed the classroom attitude regarding grammar! When the students walk into my room and see a sentence on the board, they immediately start thinking about the overall sentence, the words in it, and the relationships between those words and phrases. Seem hard to believe? Here’s what happened on Thursday.
Some notes before you watch …
I split the video into two parts. Part one focuses on the parts of speech for each word in the sentence. It also focuses on the important parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object, indirect object/subject complement). As you watch, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to identify parts of speech without considering how those words relate to the other words in the sentence. None of the steps in this four level analysis can be done in complete isolation. That wouldn’t make sense. As an example, one of the students points out early in the video that the word “her” can be both a possessive determiner (adjective) and an object pronoun. Brilliant. Then it becomes our job to figure out what its function is in this sentence before we can be satisfied that we have labeled it correctly.
You will notice that I begin by counting the words in the sentence and asking for that many volunteers to come to the board and identify the part of speech for each word. You will also notice that I have an abundance of volunteers! With everyone going to the board at once, no one is singled out as having put any particular identification underneath any particular word. And when they walk away, we have a place to start our discussion. The students can consider the labels placed beneath each word and either support them with evidence or question them. As a class we can figure out not only why we don’t think the current label is correct, but also what we think the correct label is and why. My plan is to turn the thinking and evidence finding back on the students as much as I can. When they are stuck, that is when I step in. You can tell by the types of questions they ask and the number of students participating that they are engaged in this type of analysis.
Here is Part 2. In this video the students identified the prepositional phrases and the sentence structure. You may have noticed that in Part 1 the students identified the sentence structure as complex when they labeled “because” as a conjunction. Now it was time to repeat what was said then and to talk about the difference between clauses and phrases. Then we reviewed the difference between independent and dependent. I love talking about the word sums for those two words and what the base’s denotation reveals to us about what the words mean. According to Etymonline, the base <pend> is from Latin pendere “to hang, cause to hang; weigh.” A few weeks ago when we first talked about dependent and independent clauses, I threw out the words “suspenders”, “suspend”, “pendant”, “perpendicular” and “pendulum.” We talked about how they each share a sense and meaning of “hang.”
Then I drew the T Model (one of Michael Clay Thompson’s brilliant ideas to visually represent a sentence) on the board, and the students told me how to fill it in. Normally the students create their own, but this was the first time we were using the T Model to represent a sentence with two clauses. I wanted to show them how we might show the connection between the two.
I know that there are those out there who insist that grammar is black and white, right or wrong and can only be diagrammed with trees. But in the same way that I am teaching my students to be open in their thinking about words, I am teaching them to be open in their thinking about grammar. As you can see, the students seek to understand the logic of the sentence and how the order of the words can affect that. You could probably hear them flipping through their grammar book (the interactive one I made for them) to find the evidence to back up their hypotheses about a particular word or phrase identification. They are engaged, they are thinking, and they are making connections. The next step will be to have them write their own complex sentences for us to analyze. I anticipate that they will relish doing so!
If you are interested in learning how to implement this kind of analysis with your students, check out the tab at the top of this page that is labeled “Grammar Class”. I may have a schedule up that works for you. If I don’t, please contact me and we can set one up that does!
Something quite amazing and wonderful happened the other day. But before I tell you about it, I need to tell you what led up to it.
In the past few weeks, students have been working on several orthography projects. Prior to that, they had been working in groups to create podcasts. As each group finished their podcast (based on a word investigation), they needed something new to investigate while the rest of the groups were still working. Instead of assigning the same activity to all who were ready for something, I mixed things up. In that way, when the students are ready to present, we will have a variety of orthographic concepts to be talking about. Here are the projects I assigned:
1) I let some students choose a word and independently investigate it. This has become a favorite activity among my students. They enjoy the freedom of choosing their own word and then seeing what they can discover. I like this activity because they get practice using etymological resources (reading and pulling information pertinent to their investigation). They are able to choose whether to use Mini Matrix Maker or create their own matrix. Each finished poster has the same types of information as all the others, yet has been touched by the individual student’s creativity. Here are some examples of finished work:
2) Some students were asked to think about an individual grapheme and the phonemes that can be represented by it. They collected words to illustrate that one grapheme can represent several different phonemes. Here are some examples of finished work:
3) Other students were paired up and asked to investigate assimilated prefixes.
I assign a particular prefix to a group. I tell them the assimilated forms I want them to look at. For example, in the picture below, this group looked at <ob->. In addition to words with <ob-> prefix, they collected words that had the assimilated forms <op->, <oc->, and <of->. Before I sent them on their way to find the words, I had them bring a dictionary to my desk so I could show them how to prove that the two initial letters were a prefix and not just the first two letters of a base.
My favorite dictionary for use in the classroom is the Collins Gage Paperback Dictionary. Let’s look at the entry for <occupy>, and I think you’ll see why I like it so much. First of all this dictionary gives the IPA. Not all dictionaries do. Then there are definitions with example sentences. Near the bottom of the entry are related words. And the last thing in the entry is important etymological information. So <occupy> is from Latin occupare “seize”; <ob-> “up” and capere “grasp.” I specifically show the students the prefix listed as <ob->, but that in the word, we see <oc-> because of assimilation having happened.
Once they list words they’ve found in this dictionary, I ask them to use another source as well. My point in doing that is that I don’t want them to rely on any one source as having all the answers. There are interesting things to note when looking at multiple sources, as I’m sure you know. Teaching that aspect of research is important and easy to do here. If the student goes to word searcher next, then they will have to find their evidence of the first two letters actually being a prefix in an etymological reference. We usually use Etymonline. If the student uses the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the etymological information will be there, although they may end up finding words that are no longer used (which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they mention its last known use)
Here’s another example of a word with the assimilated prefix <of->.
What a beautiful opportunity to talk about stress in a word! The two IPA representations show this word two ways. The first is used when the word is defined as in definitions 4 and 5. (It says 5-6, but this must be a typo as there is no 6.) The second is used when the word is defined as in definitions 1, 2, and 3. Where I’ve highlighted, you see that this is from Latin offensa, past participle of offendere; <ob-> “against” and fendere “strike.” Again, we see that in the etymological information the prefix is listed as <ob->, but in the present day word, the assimilated prefix <of-> is used. When the second element in the word begins with an <f>, the <of-> prefix has been used to better match the pronunciation of the first grapheme of the next element.
Two students who had been looking at the assimilated prefix <ad> said that they were ready to present their findings to the class. They had created a poster which they hung on the board. As usual, their classmates pulled chairs close to the front and listened carefully, thinking of questions to ask and word meanings to wonder about.
As they began to share their findings it became more and more obvious that there was a problem. They collected words that began with <an>, <al>, <at>, and <as>, but in the words they collected, those letters were not necessarily prefixes. For example, they had the word <anteater> on their list. A classmate pointed out that it was a compound word, and that if we removed the <an> from <ant>, that would mean that <t> would have to be the base in that word. That didn’t seem likely.
Another word that classmates questioned was <atmosphere>. We studied that word at the beginning of the year and the students remembered that the word sum is <atm + o + sphere –> atmosphere>. Then I spotted <astrologist> and shared that the word sum would be <astr + o + log + ist –> astrologist>. We have come across other words with a structure similar to this (biologist, geologist, hydrologist, seismologist).
There were other words that obviously didn’t have the <ad-> prefix or any of its assimilated prefixes too. The two had identified the <as> in <ashore> and the <ar> in <army>.
I did not take a picture of their poster, but the next day I took a picture of the notebook they used. You can see that quite a few words on this list look questionable. There are only a few that have an assimilated form of <ad-> as a prefix. For example there is <announce> from <ad>”to” and nuntiare “report”, and <attention> from <ad> “to, toward” and tendere “stretch.” But most of the rest of these have a different story to tell.
The word <android> is from Greek andro- “man” and eides “form, shape.” The word <angel> is from Greek angelos “messenger, one that announces.” The word <anniversary> is from Latin annus “year” and versus “to turn.” Enjoy yourself as you check out some of these others on your own! So back to the presentation and what to do next.
It was obvious that the students must have copied words that began with the same letters as the assimilated forms of <ad-> without checking to make sure that those spellings were indeed a prefix. Even this far into the year, I see that a few of the students still do word work on “automatic pilot.” This activity might have seemed like the word sorts they did in years prior that matched things on the surface of the word without much thought needed. Perhaps they were confused when I explained how to find the evidence and didn’t let me know. Regardless of how it came to be, we were looking at a huge misunderstanding of what a prefix is and what it isn’t!
But my next thought was protecting the inquisitiveness of these two students. They might begin to feel embarrassed if we kept pointing out words that didn’t belong on this list. There sure were a lot. As a class, we have talked often about mistakes being the opportunity to learn something new, but this was a scenario through which I wanted to tread lightly. I wanted to turn this investigation around without my students feeling any shame for having misunderstood the task.
But here’s where the amazing and wonderful thing came in. When I suggested that these two scrap this poster and redo their look at the <ad> prefix, they matter of factly said, “Okay.” They weren’t angry. They didn’t feel defeated. Their body posture didn’t show shame or humiliation. (And believe me, I was watching those two closely.) And because the attitude we’ve spent the year nurturing is one based on proving or disproving our hypotheses based on evidence, these two didn’t feel like quitting either! It was such a deeply satisfying moment. I was pleased, obviously, but also in awe of the environment the students and I have created that allows for failure without judgement. I thought for the rest of the day about this. What contributed to their rather amenable response to being asked to repeat their investigation? When I think back to the beginning of the year, I would have expected eyeballs to roll or mumbling to occur. What was different now? Well, I believe a huge part of the change is the mindset of the entire class. The students (in the audience) who were questioning these words were speaking in a very neutral sincere tone. The presenters didn’t feel judged, and therefore were able to hear what was being questioned and why.
I said to the class, “Maybe it would be a good idea for all of us to review how we know when an initial <ad> is a prefix, versus when it is just part of the word. Can anyone think of a word that might have an <ad> prefix? Let’s walk through the process again. If these two misunderstood how to prove you were looking at a prefix, someone else might be misunderstanding as well.”
A student raised his hand and asked if we could look at<adolescent>. “That’s a great word to look at! I’m not sure what we’ll find about that initial <ad>!”
I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard so we could all see the entry.
We read through the entry and didn’t feel like the information we were looking for was here. I reminded the students that following the link (dark red) is always a good idea. So we clicked on <adolescent> (n.).
We read through the entry together, discussing the fact that they would be called adolescents because they were young people who were growing up. Then we came to the information we were looking for. This word is from Latin <ad-> “to” and alescere “be nourished” hence, “increase, grow up.”
Next I asked the class if anyone could think of another word with the base we see in <adolescent>. I wasn’t too surprised when no one raised their hand. But it would be important to find one. That would provide the final piece of evidence that in Modern English, we see this base in other words with either a different prefix or none at all. We went to Word Searcher and typed<alesc> in the search bar. We found coalesce, and convalesce. I reminded the students that we had looked at the bound base <vale> “strong” in February and that <convalesce> was one of the related words we found. When someone is convalescing, they are resting and growing stronger. Interesting. There is definitely a sense of “growing healthy” in this word, yet the <ale> spelling can’t be in both the <vale> base and the <alesce> base. I mean it could, but in that moment, I didn’t know. I would be putting that word on my “give this some further thought” list. As I said that, several heads nodded in recognition. Then we looked at <coalesce>. The word <coalesce> means to unite by growing together. It is an assimilated form of <com-> “together” and alescere “be nourished, grow.” Cool! Now we could verify that in the word <adolescent>, the <ad> is a prefix.
At this point the students were ready to have work time. It surprises and delights me that individual work time is one of their favorite things! There are even times (more often than one would guess) when students and I are together in the cafeteria or on the playground, and I am enthusiastically asked, “Do we get to work on our word projects today?”
I waited until everyone was busy at whatever task they were involved in. Then I went over to follow up with the group that was redoing their <ad-> investigation. One of the students was still a bit foggy about this investigation. “Go get one of the red dictionaries,” I told him. When he returned, I said, “Open it to the section of words that begin with <ad>.” I wanted to make sure these students were on the right track. We came across the word <adopt>. I had one of them read the entry out loud. As we discussed this word, one of the students knew that babies could be adopted, but hadn’t really thought about ideas being adopted. Then we came to the evidence we were looking for. I have it highlighted for you. I said, “Look at that! The prefix has a sense of “to” and the base has a denotation of “choose!” Does that make sense with what we understand this word to mean?” They both agreed that it did.
Now I wanted to show them what they would find with one of the assimilated forms of <ad->. I asked them to turn to the <ar> section. As we read words on the page, we were looking specifically for the last line of each entry. Then we spotted the words <Latin ad- “to” + restare “stop”>. Our eyes went back to the header word which was <arrest>. One of the students read the definition. It was surprising to the students that arrest could mean stop as in the sentence, “Filling a tooth arrests decay.” When we read the highlighted portion after having read the rest of the entry, it made sense. To stop something is to make it stay.
At this point, I asked if they understood better what to be looking for. They said they did and promised to call me over if they had any questions. It was time to let them at it!
I made my way around the room checking in on other groups/individuals. There were at least two groups that had completed a look at assimilated prefixes and were ready for another new investigation. I called them over to my desk and gave them a mini lesson on Latin verbs. We have talked about Latin verbs as a class, and now it was time for the students to investigate on their own. I gave each group of two (and in some cases a student on their own) a card with the four principal parts of a specific Latin verb. I will explain this process further in another blog post.
As I was talking to one group about Latin verbs, I saw the group that was redoing their work on assimilated prefixes raise their hands. I went over as soon as I could. “How’s it going? Are you finding words you have questions about?”
And then the boy (who is not generally excited about classroom stuff) enthusiastically said, “Yes! Did you know that <journ> means “day?”
My first response was, “Yes, I did know that. We see it in journal, right?”
“Wait. What? In journal? How does that mean day?”
“Well, generally, how often does a person write in their journal?”
“Oh! Every day! Cool!”
“And what about a journey?”
“A journey? That’s like going on a trip.”
“Right. And your journey is measured in days.”
“That is so cool!”
And that’s when the bell rang and it was time to clean up and leave for the day. Here’s the really funny thing. These two that were enthusiastic about <journ> were the two who were working on the <ad-> prefix. I walked away wondering how in the world they came across <journ> in their search for assimilated forms of <ad->. But just now it seems so obvious. You probably already put two and two together, didn’t you? Or should I say <ad-> and <journ>. Too funny. I’ll have to make sure I adjourn the class tomorrow instead of dismissing them. I’d love to see their eyes light up with recognition!
SWI provides a reliable framework for our investigations and guides our thinking. Questioning becomes an expected activity and instead of being intimidated by someone questioning your work, you become interested, truly interested in what it is they question and whether or not you’ve misunderstood something. Individually, the goal is always to understand things better. In order to stay focused on that goal, you need to hear the questions and give them consideration. Too often we hear a question, take it as a criticism, and then defend our position, right or wrong. We’re not really considering the question. Instead we are plotting our defense. Structured Word Inquiry has brought a culture of listening and questioning to my classroom. The words “right” and “wrong” have been replaced with “proven” and “could be, but I’m not sure about that.” That culture has made my room a safe place for learning. A place for true scholarship. It is an exciting place to be every single day!
My students have been working on several things lately. Some have been looking at specific graphemes/digraphs and the phonemes that they can represent. Others have been looking at prefixes and the assimilated forms they often have. Still others have begun to explore Latin verbs and the unitary/twin bases that come from them. So with all of these different investigations going on at once, how do I make sure that all the students are learning all these things? It happens on a day like today. It happens when I plan a simple review that turns into a simply rich inquiry. I can’t imagine that any other review set up in the same way would yield anything less. You see this wasn’t a fluke. It didn’t just happen once today. It happened three times … in each of my three classes. Fortunately I set up my camera during one of the classes and am able to invite you in. If I tried to tell you all about it without letting you see for yourself, you might think I was exaggerating.
Setting the scene …
Here are a few of the posters my students have presented lately. When I say they presented the poster, I mean they told the class what their investigation was all about. They read any words they found that were related to the investigation, and then they shared the definitions of some of the words that were new to them as they investigated. After that, the students listening asked questions and discussions ensued.
With other investigations still in process, I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what we have been learning. Every once in a while I see the students sliding back into the comfortable yet unproductive habit of robotic research. I define that as collecting what has been asked for without thinking about what the words mean or whether or not they fit the focus of the investigation. Their whole spelling lives they have been asked to mindlessly focus on letters and letter strings. They have not been asked to see those letter strings as anything in particular. I am asking them to think critically about whether those letter strings constitute a morpheme in a word. This is a new skill for most.
Before the students walked in, I wrote the prefix <sub-> on the board along with the most common sense it brings to a base, “up, under.” Then once the students were seated, I asked them to think of words with a <sub-> prefix. It could actually be <sub>, but it could also be one of this prefix’s assimilated forms (<suf>, <sug>, <sup>, <suc>, <sur>). Here is what the board looked like:
At this point I asked the students to look at the board and let me know what they thought. Did all of these words indeed have an <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms? Is there anything you question or wonder about?
I turned on my camera and the students were engaged in discussion for 50 minutes. Fifty minutes! Take a listen and see where their questions and observations took the discussion. (Don’t worry. I edited so that the first video is 12 minutes and the second is 7 minutes. I must say it was hard to find parts of the discussion to cut. It was all as great and interesting as what you are about to see!)
As you can see, the questions just kept coming and the students exhibited a comfort level in using the resources (on this day it was Etymonline and the Collins Gage Canadian Paperback dictionary). They were connecting dots all over the place! They were understanding familiar words in a new way and understanding unfamiliar words enough to connect them to other words by their structure. Structured Word Inquiry is never about memorizing a word’s spelling. It is about understanding it. But becoming a better speller is a pretty reliable side effect of the work my students do each day. We talk about words every day whether we are focused on SWI or not.
When my third group of fifth grade students brainstormed their own list of words with the <sub-> prefix or one of its assimilated forms, this is what the board looked like. I did not take video, but you can imagine by what you see that it was every bit as rich a discussion as with my middle class. You’ll notice that some of the same words were thought of by students in each class, but then there were words that didn’t appear in the last group’s discussion. Is that important? I don’t think so. We focused on the meaning and structure of the words. And when we needed it, we went to a resource to find out which language the word originated in and perhaps what other languages had an effect on its spelling.
You will notice that we crossed off the words <sucking> and <super>. It was in a quick discussion that a student explained why the <suc> in <sucking> couldn’t be a prefix like we see in <success>. In the word <sucking>, the students recognized that the base was <suck> and that the <ck> was representing one phoneme, /k/. The students decided that if <super> had an <sup> prefix, that would leave <er> which is a pretty common suffix. But then there wouldn’t be a base! As I did with the other class, I had someone look up the word <super> to verify that the <sup> was indeed part of the base and NOT a prefix. As it turns out, this word is from Latin super “above, over, beyond.” This word is a free base and it’s spelling hasn’t changed at all! We talked about superheros and supervisors and how that denotation of “above, over, beyond” made sense.
That brought us to the word <supper>. Everyone was familiar with supper being a meal eaten in the evening. One hypothesis was that the prefix was <sup> and the base was <per>. Another was that the prefix was <sup>, the base was <p>, and that the suffix was <er>. I had someone go get a dictionary. That person reported that the base was <sup> with a denotation of “dine.” That meant that the <er> was a suffix and the second <p> was the doubled <p> from when the vowel suffix was added. They were not familiar with the base <sup>, so I reminded them of the base <hap> that we see in <happy>. A very similar thing happens in that word. So even though the <sup> in <supper> is followed by a <p>, that doesn’t mean it is a prefix. In this word, the <sup> is the base! It’s a third word we could have crossed off.
Since we had just found a word in which the <sup> was a base and the <p> that followed it was the doubled <p>, someone wondered if the same thing was happening with <supply>. They asked if <sup> was the base and there was an <ly> suffix. But then someone else pointed out that <ly> is a consonant suffix and wouldn’t cause doubling. (It is so amazing and wonderful to watch one student’s understanding broaden another student’s understanding!) So then the student who had raised the question went to get a dictionary to find out whether or not the base was <ply>. The student found out that in this word, the prefix <sub> has a sense of “up” and that <ply> is from Latin plere “to fill.” Someone immediately thought of buying school supplies. Someone else thought of the way the school supplies desks and chairs for the students. Both are example of items that fill a need.
From <supply> we went directly to <supplement>. I wondered aloud what a supplement was? Someone was familiar with a supplement being extra sheets of ads that comes with their newspaper. I mentioned that I sometimes take a supplement. I sometimes take a vitamin C tablet. Several students nodded and shared that they sometimes do too, like when they have a cold. So we came to the understanding that a supplement is something added to something else. When a student looked in the dictionary, the student found out that <supplement> is from Latin supplere “to fill up.” Then the entry said, “See supply.” Aha! This is the same Latin base we saw in <supply>!
Another interesting word was <submarine>. The students were pretty confident that <sub> was the prefix here because they knew that a submarine was a vessel that went under the water. So I asked if they thought <marine> would be the base or whether it could be further analyzed. It was quiet for a bit while everyone gave it some thought. Then someone said, “Could the <ine> be a suffix like in <saltine>?” I added, “And <routine>.” Hmmm. A student once again offered to look up <marine> to see what evidence there was to help us with identifying the base. The student found out that it was from Latin mare “the sea”, which really made sense to everyone seeing as a submarine goes under the sea! Could we think of any other words with <mare> as its base? I thought of <maritime> which I explained as having to do with the sea. I could say that a dolphin is a maritime mammal, meaning it lives in the sea. Then, when I was just about to move on, someone suggested a student’s name. Marissa. I had no idea if that would share the base or not. It shares spelling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they share meaning. So I told Marissa to get a Chromebook and find out what her name meant. Sure enough! It comes from the Latin maris “of the sea!” How about that?
In each of my three classes we started the same way, but then followed the path led by their questions. Over and over we talked about the prefix <sub> and the sense it brought to each of the words it was part of. We made great discoveries about some unfamiliar bases, both bound and free. We even talked about twin bases when the opportunity arose. They eagerly jumped up to get a dictionary when we were ready to understand a word’s structure better. We connected the literal meanings of the base and prefix to what we understood the words to mean in our daily lives. We stretched that understanding to other words with the same base when we could. Most importantly, the students looked critically at the words and determined for themselves whether or not there was an <sub-> or other assimilated form of an <sub-> prefix. When the letters at the beginning of the word were found not to be a prefix, the students could explain why that was.
This kind of critical thinking, this kind of scientific inquiry comes without judgement. Students offer suggestions without the fear of being wrong and the embarrassment that goes along with that. Everyone has the same pursuit, which is to make sense of a word’s spelling. And everyone participates in that common pursuit. Some think to themselves. Some think out loud. Some ask questions. Some jump at the chance to look something up in one of our dictionaries or at Etymonline. The engagement is high and the delight in discovering something about a word or a connection being made is often audible. (And usually accompanied by a sweet smile!) This is what I have always imagined learning to be like! As Malina said at the end of the second video, “Every single time that someone comes up with an idea, we should put a little light bulb above their head.” Man would there ever be a glow coming from our room!