I thought carefully for most of the summer about the best way to introduce the spelling truths (which I like to think of as the fabric of orthography) to my new fifth graders. Hmmmm. Where to begin? What to start with? What is the ground level understanding they will need in order to pursue independent inquiries?
It was obvious to me that they needed to understand some linguistic terminology, the fact that words have structure, and the fact that it is more important to understand the meaning and sense of what a word brings to the context in which it is found than it is to be able to pronounce it. Beyond that, further orthographical discoveries will be more like delightful and savory surprises.
Even with the determination of what I deemed an essential foundation, I continued to ponder what to start with. The students before me would not only be new to fifth grade, they would also be new to the idea of “spelling makes perfect sense”. There is very little they understand about “why” when it comes to spelling. They have spent their time sorting, grouping, using in sentences, copying and over-pronouncing words with the hope that the exposure alone will help the student memorize each word’s spelling. So, one word at a time, the students have been asked to memorize spellings. How deadening to the student who needs to understand in order to make a spelling stick! How unprofitable to the student who can easily memorize those spellings, but is never shown the relationships words have with one another.
So it isn’t just that the students are coming to me with a lack of understanding, they are also coming to me with little interest and low expectations that studying spelling can be anything but dry and dull. I thought some more. What will ignite their eagerness to know more? As I thought, I thought back to what ignited my own eagerness only three and a half years ago. What were those word examples that made me believe that I was indeed staring spelling truths straight in the face? Which matrices made convincing evidence obvious to me when I wasn’t even looking for it? Which orthographic nuggets made me lift my eyebrows and smile?
Here’s what I did. On day one I wrote three words on the board: <to> <too> <two>. The students were aware that these were homophones. They understood that homophones share a pronunciation but not a spelling. Next I asked them to give me a definition of each word. They found it easier to use the words in sentences than to define them, especially with <to>. At this point, I brought up the idea that words can be categorized as either function words or content words. Function words tend to have less letters than their homophone partners, and are less easy to define in isolation. We identified <to> as a function word that is commonly used as a preposition.
Then we talked about the spelling of these three words, and noticed that the first had one <o>, the second had two <o>’s and that the third couldn’t have three <o>’s. That is something we don’t see in a complete English word. So why is there a <w>? A third <o> couldn’t be used so the next best thing was a <w>? Hmmmm. Interesting. Perhaps there is an explanation to be found if we look at words related to <two>? I asked if anyone could think of a word that had a <tw> letter combination and also had something to do with the number two. Almost immediately someone thought of <twelve>. As that person was explaining the connection to the number two, other hands shot up. We ended up with a list on the board that included twenty, twice, twilight, twist, twin and between. Suddenly the spelling of the number two was less weird, less random. The <w> was there to mark a connection between the number two and other words with <tw> that also have something to do with two.
On day two I began by showing a video my students made a few years ago. It’s called “Can You Prove It?” It’s a game show in which the two contestants are given words, and they have to identify the suffix. As they name the suffix, they also provide evidence to prove that their choice makes sense.
At its end we discussed things like free and bound bases, prefixes and suffixes, and the terms ‘word sums’ and ‘word structure’. We also addressed the appearance of a single non-syllabic <e> in the word sum <mote> + <ion>, but not in its final form <motion>. Every student in the room knew that there would be a final non-syllabic <e> in the word <hope> and that the <e> was not in the word <hoping>, but because they do not know WHY it is in one and not the other, they don’t expect that same convention to happen in other words!
I followed our discussion by having the students brainstorm a list of words with <hope> as the free base. After the list was completed, I drew a matrix on the board to share a way to organize the morphemes that are part of completed words that share a base. When the hand drawn matrix reflected the words we listed, I quickly typed in the same list at Mini-Matrix Maker and created a computer drawn matrix. We compared the two and reviewed why some affixes seem to be in compartments and some seem to be part of a list. Then we practiced recognizing words by choosing morphemes in a specific order. Here is the matrix we made:
I patiently listened as the students pronounced the suffixes as if they were words, knowing that on day three I needed to show them why morphemes need to be spelled out and not pronounced.
On day three I wrote the word <sign> on the board and asked if it was free or bound. It was identified as free because it could be used without adding any affixes. Then I went to my desk and pulled Etymonline up on the SmartBoard. We looked together at the entry for <sign>. I talked a bit about the “early 13c.” that began the entry. I explained that that is when the word was first attested. Doug Harper, the author of Etymonline, looks at written documents to find the earliest date he can in which the word in question was in use. If he finds a written document with the word, he notes the date and looks at written documents from before that date. He stops when he cannot find the word in any earlier written documents that he has access to. Does that mean the word couldn’t have existed before that? No. It means we do not have evidence of it existing before that. I wanted to make sure that my students know that scholars rely on evidence, and if we are going to be scholars, we will need to rely on it too. We went on to read the rest of the entry and found out how recent the term sign language really is (1847).
Next I walked over to the white board again and began a matrix for the free base <sign>. After having read the full entry for <sign> at Etymonline, it was decided that “to mark” would be a denotation we could use. The students brainstormed words that belonged to this family, and I filled in the matrix. It didn’t take long before someone suggested the word <design>. “Say that again,” I asked. “Are you pronouncing the base in <design> the same way you would if the <de> prefix were not there?” The students noticed that the <s> was pronounced as /z/ in <design> and /s/ in <sign>. This is a reason to spell out our morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. Until a word is complete, we don’t know how to pronounce it.
After students suggested <signer>, <designs>, and <signing> there was a pause. “Can you think of any others?” I asked. A hand went up and a boy quietly and uncertainly asked if <signature> might be one. “Well, does a signature have anything to do with making a mark?”, I asked. While the students were agreeing that it did, someone else blurted out excitedly, “And this word is evidence for having the <g> in the base!” That was like music to my ears! More quickly than I expected, they are connecting dots! The final word added to our matrix was <signal>, to which someone blurted, “…more evidence for why there’s a <g>!” But it was also evidence to support the practice of spelling out morphemes until a word is complete and ready to be pronounced.
On day four I shared with the students my understanding of how the days of the week were named. None of the students really knew anything about this, although they had some pretty imaginative guesses. I began by sharing the names given by the Romans:
One boy quickly raised his hand and said that they looked like planet names. I smiled, commented “Nicely done,” and pointed up to the new poster on our wall:
I told them that the Latin word dies (day) has the bound base <di> that we see in our modern word <diary>. That made sense since a diary is where we do daily writing. They knew that solis had to do with the sun because they thought of <solar>. They knew that lunae had to do with the moon because they thought of <lunar>. As for the rest of the days, they named every planet except Jupiter (lovi).
The Romans, like the Greeks, paired up the planets with their Gods and the characteristics attributed to their Gods. When the Germanic tribes decided to use this idea of naming the days of the week after the planets and their associated Gods, they used their own Gods that matched in characteristics to the Roman Gods. Here is how the Germanic people who spoke Old English named the days:
sunnandæg Sun’s day
monandæg Moon’s day
tiwesdæg Tiw’s day
wodnesdæg Woden’s day
thurresdæg Thunor’s day
frigedæg Freya’s day
sæternesdæg Saturn’s day
At this point, we could definitely see that the names were becoming familiar! We especially enjoyed learning that <Friday> and <friend> share a base, and therefore a denotation! Friday was named for Venus which was associated with the characteristics of love and affection. Isn’t a friend someone for whom you have a level of love and affection?
Telling the story of the days of the week gave us an opportunity to understand how people can shape the spelling of words. The Germanic people liked the idea of naming the days after the sun, the moon and the planets. They even liked the idea of associating those planets with Gods. But they had their own Gods, and they adopted and adapted the weekday names to reflect their own Gods. Perhaps this has happened with other words in other places as well. Telling the story of the days of the week also gave us an opportunity to talk about letters that don’t exist anymore, as with the letter ash <æ> that has since become a single <a>. Perhaps there are other letters that were once common, but no longer exist as part of our alphabet
As we were finishing up our discussion of how the days of the week were named, one boy turned to the student next to him, put his hands to his head, and made a gesture as if his mind had just been blown! It was just the reaction I had hoped for! The eagerness is settling in. I can feel it.
On day five, I shared a video of two 6 year old boys who were investigating <carnivore> in Jim and Lyn Anderson’s classroom.
When it was finished, I asked if anyone thought that <carnivore> was a pretty big word for first graders. Lots of students raised their hands. Then I asked if anyone in the class had ever been fascinated with dinosaurs at the same age. Only a few hands went up, but the children those hands belonged to were ready to relive that enthusiasm and tell about their favorites! I was making the point that 6 year old children are not intimidated by large words. It is the adults and the writing programs they use who decide what length of word is appropriate at what age. How confining and insulting!
Secondly, look at the comfort these boys have in using the online resource Etymonline. They do not stop and embarrassingly try to pronounce a word in Late Latin. Instead they spell it and learn from it what they need to know – how its spelling compares to the word they are investigating. And they aren’t just blindly copying things down in their notebook. They are talking about what they are discovering and can easily explain their understanding without having to read it out of their notebook.
I wrote <carnivore> and <herbivore> on the board. We reviewed that the boys had said the base of <carnivore> was <carn> and meant “meat”. I reminded them that the teacher had mentioned a second base which was <vore> and that the boys had defined it as “eat or only eat”. I wrote a word sum: <carn> + <i> + <vore>. I didn’t say anything about the <i> just yet. Then we looked at <herbivore>. I began a word sum, bracketing the known base <vore>. Someone spotted the familiar base <herb> and could even tell me it was a free base. I finished the word sum: <herb> + <i> + <vore>. I wondered if anyone recognized what these two word sums had in common. That is when we turned our attention to the <i> in both words. I explained that it is a connecting vowel, and that because it is an <i>, we know that it is from Latin. Someone asked if it is like a conjunction. In a way it is. It is an affix that connects two morphemes in a word. Then I shared the word that first convinced me that a connecting vowel was a real thing: <speedometer>. This is a compound word with two free bases. It is obvious that the <o> is not part of either base, but is there to connect the two. And because the connecting vowel is an <o>, I know this word is from Greek.
We talked about the fact that these are both compound words because there are two bases in each. I pointed out that they have the same structure: a base + a connecting vowel + a base. All words have a structure. I demonstrated this by bringing back the examples we saw in our <hope> matrix and our <sign> matrix.
So that is how the first week went. I feel good about the choices I made in regards to what I shared and what was introduced. I’ve seen the eyebrows go up and the smiles cross their lips. At the end of day five, a girl told the class that every night her mom asks her what she learned that day. She hasn’t always had something to tell her mom. But this year it’s different. Every day this week she taught her mom some orthography!