Today we focused on the importance of a word sum, and how a word sum is to be read. I picked the base element <joy> to work with because I was confident that the students would be able to brainstorm a list of words that are morphological relatives of <joy>. A morphological relative shares the spelling of the base and the denotation (is from the same etymological root).
As the students thought of words, I wrote them in a column to the right. When we had a good sized list, I asked if anyone could give me a word sum for one of the words. At this point, I emphasized that the base element was <joy> and could not be made smaller without losing its sense and meaning. I compared writing a word as a word sum to splitting a spelling into syllables. Syllables carry no meaning, but morphemes do. Syllables may or may not help you with pronunciation, but a word sum will always help you understand a word’s meaning. You will find words written as syllables in most dictionaries. There is no internet site or dictionary that lists word sums. Word sums have to be reasoned out by you!
This last bit is extremely important. Students are used to finding answers in books or on the internet. They are used to answer keys with which to check their work. At first they feel confused by word sum hypotheses. That happens because they have not been exposed to enough word sums. With time, they begin to notice patterns and recognizable clues which in turn help them write a more likely initial word sum hypothesis. Through experience working with word sums, they better understand that all words have structure. They become less nervous in proposing a word sum hypothesis and instead are actually excited at the prospect. Some of my past 5th grade students have said that proposing word sum hypotheses was one of their favorite parts of orthography!
As the students hypothesized each word as a word sum, I wrote the word sum along with the ‘is rewritten’ arrow to the left of each word. That way I had the full word sum represented for each word.
Next I modeled how I wanted each word sum read. I’ll use the first word as an example: <j..o..y plus ful is rewritten as j..o..y (pause) ful> … joyful. The natural tendency was to pronounce the elements as if they were words. Changing that tendency was part of what today’s practice was all about. We don’t pronounce elements until until the word is complete. Since a word sum is a visual representation of the composing of a word, nothing is ready to be pronounced because the word is not completed. Everything is spelled out. I also encourage the students to announce the spelling of the suffixes a bit quicker than they do the spelling of the base elements. I want them to think of the suffixes that they will be seeing often as recognizable units. I want them to rattle off, for instance, suffixes such as <-ing>, <-ed>, <-ous>, <-ly>, and <-ic>. Then when they are in the midst of spelling a word on paper, the spelling of that suffix is in their head and there is less chance of leaving a letter off.
A few other things came up as we looked over this list. We talked about the difference in spelling between <-ful> the suffix and <full> the free base word. I introduced the idea of announcing the suffix <-ness> as <n..e..double s>. It was also an introduction to looking at what each element in a word sum contributed to the overall sense and meaning of the completed word.
I showed them a chart that would be at the board to remind them of the types of elements we might see in a word sum. I pointed out that bases and affixes are written morphemes. In the first few weeks of school, we have been talking about the difference between a base that is free and a base that is bound. The students will be investigating twin bases later in the year. Since the students (in groups of 2-3) have already begun investigating science words, we have also talked a bit about everything else on this poster. Each small group is investigating a word similar in structure to <biosphere>. Each word is compound with <sphere> as its second base. Each word also has a connecting vowel – in this case an <o> because one or both bases in their compound word are Hellenic (from Greek).
I started at one end of the room, and asked each student to read a word sum and finish by pronouncing the completed word. When we came to the bottom of the list, we started over. In that way, every child was able to individually read a word sum. In listening to the readings, the process became familiar to all. This is a practice I will continue doing throughout the year when we collect any list of morphological relatives. Hearing themselves announce the word sum will help this idea of a word sum become part of what they understand about all words. When they are writing and asking themselves how to spell <really>, I want them to remember that the base is <real> and they are adding the suffix <ly> to it to form the word <really>.
A few students inadvertently said “equals” instead of “is rewritten as” when they saw the arrow. That was a great opportunity to compare a word sum to a math equation and to point out the use of “sum” in our use of “word sum”.
I also used this opportunity to talk about the difference between a synthetic word sum and an analytic word sum. I pointed to the poster card I now have on my board to remind them of these new terms and what they mean. (Check out the store tab on my blog if you are interested in a set of my cards. 🙂) I explained that the word <synthetic> means to put together and the word <analytic> means to loosen. So a synthetic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with elements and combines them (puts them together) to form a complete word. An analytic word sum is the kind of word sum that begins with a completed word and loosens it into its elements.
I told my students that my goal is for them to spell a word by its morphemes. I want to replace the often torturous memorization of “letter letter letter” type sequences with knowing that a word has, for instance, a base <joy>, a suffix <ful>, and another suffix <ly>. This will not be accomplished by sounding out words, but rather by learning about structure and repeatedly seeing and using some common affixes and bases.
The students enjoyed this activity and asked if we could do it again sometime. Yes. We can and will do it many many times! I promise!
Like many native English speakers, those who are learning English often express disappointment that words that have identical letter strings do not rhyme (bomb/tomb/comb, read/red, thought/though/through). It’s interesting to me that my own attitude about that has become one of fascinated interest. Where someone else might throw their hands up and cross their eyes, I smile and pause to consider what might be going on with those words. Then I head to a trusted etymological dictionary (usually Online Etymology Dictionary first) to investigate and check out my hypotheses. At times I search through a second or even third etymological resource. Maybe I end up in either my copy of Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary or Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. I might even be led to Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling for further understanding. The point is that I will look because I expect there to be an explanation. Those who throw their hands up and cross their eyes have never been taught that an explanation is possible. What a shame. Because an explanation is not on the surface of the word, those people think it doesn’t exist. I guess they’ve never applied the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” to a word. What a difference that has made for my students and me!
This morning I was reading THIS ARTICLE in Huffpost called “35 Confusing Things About the English Language”. Nine out of the 35 comments listed were related to the expectation that things with similar spellings should be similar in their pronunciations. That’s 1/4 of the comments!
Since I don’t fluently speak another language, I’ve never stopped to wonder whether or not a letter or letter combination in another language is reliably pronounced one certain way. I’ve just always understood that in English it’s not that way. As my respected orthography teacher says, “English spelling represents the language we already speak. Its job is not to teach us how to speak our own language.” The job of English spelling is to represent meaning. You see, words are a combination of morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest functioning unit in the construction of a word’s meaning. As morphemes are joined, the word’s meaning emerges.
A morpheme, either alone or in combination with other morphemes, constructs meaning. Each morpheme on its own might not carry specific meaning, (I’m thinking of a connecting vowel here and perhaps some suffixes) but each has a function in connecting the morphemes that do. In a completed word, every morpheme can be identified, and its function (as it relates to the construction of the word’s meaning) explained. Morphemes are bases (free or bound) and affixes. The base carries the principle meaning in the word. Affixes are either derivational (alter the meaning of the word by building on the base) or inflectional (have a grammatical function). All prefixes are derivational whereas suffixes are either one or the other. Very few people have been taught to look at a word and automatically think about what its morphemes might be and what sense and meaning they bring to the total word. Instead, most people look at a word and think that the spelling of the word dictates its pronunciation. Then they get frustrated that sounding out the letters doesn’t always result in a recognizable pronunciation of the word in question.
I have to wonder if it isn’t our own fault that we have this unrealistic expectation that words spelled similarly must rhyme. After all, think about how we teach reading in our country. Imagine yourself looking in on a primary grade classroom where students are being taught that word families include words that 1) have a certain string of letters and 2) all rhyme. Here’s an example:
What is at the head of this “family”? It is a string of letters that carries absolutely no meaning. After completing worksheets and lessons focusing on many many “families” like this, a student might very well expect that whenever a string of letters seen in one word is also in another, the two words will rhyme. Why wouldn’t they after having it demonstrated to them over and over? Are they ever told that it doesn’t always work that way? Are they ever shown examples of words that share the same string of letters but that DON’T rhyme? Right from the start children are being told something that isn’t always true, only they aren’t told that it isn’t always true. In other words, we are setting them up with this unrealistic expectation. As they begin encountering words for which this is not true, they look to their teachers for explanations. Unfortunately many teachers were never given an explanation themselves, and so have no explanation to share. And boom! The English-spelling-is-crazy-and-makes-no-sense fallacy is born to yet another generation.
What if we used that idea of a word family to signal something more helpful to a child’s comprehension AND spelling of words. What if we taught children right from the start that a word family is a group of words that share a base, and that a base carries the main sense and meaning found in all words built from that base. And most importantly, that sometimes the base is pronounced the same among words within a family, and sometimes it isn’t. Here’s an example:
The base element here is <sign>, and it has a denotation of “mark”. Now look at all the words I’ve listed that are morphological relatives (that means that they all share the spelling of the base AND they share an ancestor. Their etymological root is Latin signum “identifying mark”. As you think about each of these words, think about their meaning and how it has something to do with making a mark, marking something, indicating something, a symbol, or a designation.
THIS is a word family. There is a meaning relationship and there is a spelling relationship among these words. The meaning relationship is verified by checking an etymological resource to find evidence that they all are from the same root. I found out that the root in this case is Latin signum by looking at Etymonline. I began by searching for <sign>. I know it is a free base (is a word without needing affixes) and found it as both a verb and a noun. Its use as a noun is just a bit older, but both uses were attested in the 13th century. Then I read both entries to find the origin of <sign>. According to Etymonline, other interesting facts about the various uses of this word over time include:
“Ousted native token. Meaning “a mark or device having some special importance” is recorded from late 13c.; that of “a miracle” is from c. 1300. Zodiacal sense in English is from mid-14c. Sense of “characteristic device attached to the front of an inn, shop, etc., to distinguish it from others” is first recorded mid-15c. Meaning “token or signal of some condition” (late 13c.) is behind sign of the times (1520s). In some uses, the word probably is a shortening of ensign. Sign language is recorded from 1847; earlier hand-language (1670s).”
Isn’t it interesting that <sign> became preferred over the use of <token>? When we teach children to check whether two words share a root and therefore a denotation, it is likely they will also learn something about a word’s story (find themselves delving into etymology). They will also have looked at the etymological evidence to see if there is anything that helps explain a word’s spelling. This particular base has had the spelling of <sign> right from the start, but there are other words whose spelling makes sense once we know the word’s origin or influence by languages along its diachronical journey ending in our modern day use.
Teaching children about a word family like this results in them understanding that words have structure. Every word has a base element. We build related words by adding other bases or affixes to the base. Look back at my word web to see how obvious the structure of most of these words is. When we teach children about a word’s structure, we are teaching them about a word’s morphology. Announcing word sums is a way to reinforce our understanding of word structure. Take <designate>. The word sum is <de + sign + ate –> designate>. It would be announced as “d e plus s i g n plus a t e is rewritten as de sign ate.” The elements are spelled out, the arrow is announced with “is rewritten as”, and when spelling the finished word there is a slight pause between the elements to show recognition of those boundaries.
The third major consideration in teaching children about a word family as I have described it is that pronunciation piece. Studying a word family teaches children the reality about whether a common string of letters will always rhyme. It won’t. And with this kind of word family representation, they won’t ever think it should or be surprised that it doesn’t. As an example, let’s look at the family for <sign>. When we pronounce <sign>, <signer>, <cosign>, and <assignment>, the base is pronounced [saɪn]. But what happens when we pronounce <design> and <resign>? The base is pronounced [zaɪn]. And when we pronounce <signal>, <signify>, and <signet>, the base is pronounced [sɪgn]. In these three words the <g> is pronounced. But it isn’t pronounced in eight of the family members I’ve included in this web!
Just think about that. If spelling were there so we knew how to pronounce a word, most of the words in that one family would have different spellings. But they don’t! They are spelled the way they are to represent the meaning that they all share! The meaning and the shared spelling is what binds these words together into a family. We don’t have to blame the English language because words that look like they might rhyme don’t. Instead we need to appreciate the fact that the unpronounced <g> in this family is an allophone of /g/, and its presence marks a meaning connection to members of this family in which it is pronounced. Pronunciation is not consistent enough to be the reason for a word’s spelling, but a word’s sense and meaning is!
You may be thinking that <sign> is a word that would not be studied in a primary classroom. But why not? Surely the children know some of its related words. They don’t need to be able to read the words to understand that they all have <sign> in their spelling. They can talk about what the words mean and the teacher can talk about the structure, meaning, and even point out the differences in pronunciations of the base. More of the students will understand this than you might think, and the rest will be gaining a foundation for a more accurate understanding of how our spelling system actually works. Any classroom should make it a point to look at words that interest the students no matter how many letters the word has! If the focus is always on the structure, the meaning, the word’s relatives, and the interesting things to note about the word’s grapheme/phoneme relationships, then the word is the vehicle for the understanding. Perhaps have an “I Pick – You Pick” philosophy for choosing words to look at. It will really drum up interest!
Look at this word web that is centered around <dog>. As you include more and more of these, you can start the discussion with, “What do you notice?”
It will not take long before students say things like, “I see the word <house> in <doghouse>”. Then you know it’s time to talk about compound words. This word web could also lead to a discussion about the final pluralizing <s>. Maybe your students could quickly help you make a list of plural words and you could write them in two columns: those in which the final grapheme <s> is represented by /s/, and those in which it is represented by /z/. It won’t be long after that before they will be pointing that very thing out in plural words they are reading! And then there is the doubled <g> in <doggy>. It is not too early to talk about the doubling convention that happens when we add a vowel suffix to a base. Explain it and talk about it as an interesting thing to notice. Say something like, “I think I’ve seen that in the word <scrubbing> as well. Keep your eyes open. If you see a word that you think has a doubled consonant because of a suffix being added, let me know, and we’ll look at it together!”
Here’s another great tip: Don’t put a word web like this away until you have given students a chance to think of other words that might belong to this family. It will give you the opportunity to see what kinds of connections they are making. What if they suggested ‘hot dog’? Instead of responding yourself, give the other students the opportunity to respond. “What do the rest of you think? Does it belong? Why or why not?”.
This kind of word family is the only kind of word family. You can still talk about rhyming words if you want, but don’t call them families. If you are using them to help a child read, begin incorporating true word families as I have suggested. Sometimes we decide what our students can and cannot handle. Sometimes we misjudge them. If you are hesitant to study word families, your students will be the ones to convince you otherwise. When they point out something as they are reading in class, when they bring in a word web they made on their own at home, when they explain a suffixing convention you have previously explained, or even when they ask a question about a suffix that you didn’t expect them to, you will know they are on their way to building an understanding about the reliability of our spelling system. And you can feel great knowing that the group leaving your classroom has been taught to see below the surface of the word. They’ve peeked beneath the cover and are now judging a word by its structure (morphology), story (etymology), and grapheme/phoneme correspondences (phonology). And they are captivated!
I encourage you to click on the comments. The link is just below the end of this post in small letters. Peter Bowers has written a great response and has included links to research that may be of interest. Like I said, check it out!
I shared this video with my students the other day. It is about 7 years old, but its message is timeless and crucial if we are to teach our students how to be in charge of understanding their world. The boy speaking is Jacob Barnett. At the time this video was made he was 11 years old. At present he is 19. If you have not seen this, please watch it now. It is 18 minutes long, but well worth your time. If you have seen it before, watch it again. Having Jacob’s voice in your head as you continue to read this post will give strength to what you read.
When it was over, I said, “Well, What do you think about what he said?” One student mentioned how smart Jacob is. Another said it was weird that Jacob wore sandals. Another commented that he could tell Jacob was “different”. Yet another noticed that he had the Greek letter phi (φ ) on his shirt. (We’ve been learning the Greek alphabet). It got kind of quiet after that. So I said, “What do you think Jacob means when he says you have to stop learning and start thinking?” Now it was completely silent. And the silence was paired with facial expressions that said, “I don’t have any idea what that could mean!”
At that point I shared my own thoughts: When Jacob says to stop learning, I think he is talking about learning as it is typically done in schools. You know how it goes – the teacher tells the students what he/she wants them to know. They learn it. (This might include reading about it, writing about it, watching videos, etc.) Then the students take an assessment to see how well they learned it.
THAT is what Jacob wasn’t able to do when he was young – because of his learning differences. THAT is what Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t able to do when attending the University of Cambridge – because the school was shut down with the outbreak of the plague. And THAT is what Albert Einstein wasn’t able to do – because he was Jewish and turned away from the local university, so he ended up taking a job working in a patent office instead.
Each was prevented from following this model of learning, and in doing so, had time to think. Jacob believes it was this time to think and question and seek understanding that lead each person to their discoveries. Now, does this mean Jacob didn’t learn things by reading books? Of course not. When he had posed questions that he wished to explore and knew more information was necessary to move forward in his thinking, he read the books he needed to read! In other words, he read books and focused on understanding what he was reading. He was a motivated reader. The information he learned while reading helped him formulate new questions and better understand whether or not his past questions were on the right track. In this manner he was always motivated to deeply understand a specific topic in order to weigh whatever questions he was currently posing.
So did he in fact “stop learning”? I don’t think so. I think he stopped being a passive participant in learning, and became an active one. And he found his inner voice – that unique perspective that he has – that each of us has with which to do our thinking. Jacob explored the questions he had in a way that came natural to him. Unfortunately, the way schools are set up, students often lose sight of their own unique perspective as they get older. They get used to waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next, what information to search for, what answer to find. They become passive learners. And as passive learners, they rarely go beyond what has been laid out as the expectations for a particular assignment. If doing “a, b, and c” is what is required, very few will ask about “d”. Sometimes teachers will comment that there are students who are capable of doing more, but lack motivation. Do they really lack motivation, or have they become passive? Are YOU sometimes a passive learner?
At this point Ella raised her hand. “When we study words, we’re not passive. It’s like how Jacob learns. We do a lot of thinking about what the word means, and then we come up with a hypothesis for our word sum. We read whatever dictionary we need to while collecting our evidence and the word’s story. But WE do it ourselves.”
I answered, “Yes! You work independently and are actively involved in your learning! You look at resource books when you need to. You search for evidence to support or disprove your word sum hypothesis. You discuss with others what you are thinking about as you are finding information and hypothesizing. And often another person’s unique perspective helps you stretch your own thinking. You research and investigate and gather your evidence until you’re satisfied you understand as much as there is to understand at this time! The best part is that you recognize that you have not found an answer. You have found a temporary understanding that may in fact deepen should other evidence come to light!”
Ella continued rather proudly, “When we were taking the Forward Exam a few weeks ago, I was trying to think of what the word sum would be for <conversation>. I knew about the two possible suffixes <ate> and <ion> on this word which left <convers(e)>. I also recognized the prefix <con>, although I couldn’t remember what it meant just then. That left <vers(e)>. When I thought about that, I thought of how a verse is something I read, write, or talk about. A conversation is talking between at least two people, so I knew I was on the right track. I couldn’t look it up during the exam, but later I checked it out to see if what I thought made sense.”
I was not expecting Ella to point out this correlation between what Jacob was describing and what we do in class, but I was delighted she did! The students can FEEL the difference between passive and active learning. They recognize their own level of engagement, and how using a scientific lens to look at words has drawn them in and increased their level of interest. The fact that Ella shared her thinking about the word <conversation> and how being able to do that helped her in a situation outside of class, proves that Structured Word Inquiry has become the way she thinks about words! Ella KNOWS that a word’s spelling is not random. She KNOWS to expect its structure to make sense and to help her understand the meaning of that word.
I remember what a former student said at the end of her fifth grade year, “In fourth grade we had a list of words. We wrote them on our white board over and over again until we could spell them without looking. It got very boring very quickly. In fifth grade it’s different. We investigate a word to find out where it comes from, and what it’s word sum might look like. We find out its history and how it’s been used. Then we write about what we found, and after we’ve collected words with the same base we make a matrix. It’s a lot more work, but it is also a lot more fun!”
Did you hear that? It was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun! We have to stop deciding what is too much work or what is too hard for our students. We have to stop simplifying tasks to the point of rendering them uninteresting and requiring too little thought.
Structured Word Inquiry versus the Scientific Method
What my students do with spelling is not much different than what they do in preparation for our Science Fair. The first step is to choose a topic or a word. Next they do a bit of research. For both spelling and science, they need to know enough about their topic to create a thoughtful hypothesis. Let’s say a student is curious about the effects of music on a person’s heart rate. Before writing a hypothesis, that student would benefit from finding out what a typical resting heart rate is. It might even be helpful to find out what is considered to be an elevated heart rate. The student might also want to know how many beats per minute specific music has. The student’s hypothesis can include those pieces of information, and later on, the data collected can be compared to that hypothesis. The student investigating a word will want to brainstorm a few other words related to the targeted word. Which structural pieces are the same? Which structural pieces are different? I am speaking of morphemes. Does the student recognize affixes that could be removed in order to identify the base or bases? A hypothesis in this situation means a possible word sum. Oftentimes a student will consider two or three different word sum hypotheses.
The next step in either scenario is to research deeply. The person preparing a science experiment will want to find out more about music types, heart rates, the effects music has on people, and maybe even music therapy. The person investigating a word will want to find out when his/her word was first attested and what it meant at that time. The person may consult several etymological references to find out the word’s language of origin and its spelling in that language. What was the lexical stem in that language of origin that became today’s base element? In the process, the word’s story is revealed. It may have meant different things at different times in history. It may have had its spelling changed (for a variety of reasons) by the different groups of people who used it over time.
Now it is time for the scientist to set up the experiment, run it, and collect the data. This will take some time. The person running the science experiment will select a group of people to participate. Resting heart rates will be taken, and then music will be played. Then heart rates will be taken again. There will be tests for different kinds of music, and the group of participants will be tested several times for each type of music. The student investigating a word will now focus on collecting words that share the word’s root (ancestor) which was found during research. Words found that share both the word’s ancestor AND the base’s spelling are listed as morphological relatives. Words found that share the word’s ancestor but NOT the base’s spelling are listed as etymological relatives. In both cases it is important to keep a journal detailing this collection process in case the experiment gets repeated at a future time.
The data is collected. What’s next? The student who is preparing for the Science Fair will begin making graphs and/or charts of the data so this person can make observations. After careful consideration of what the data shows, the student draws some conclusions. Does the data support the initial hypothesis or does it falsify it? At this point, either outcome is valid. The student learns about the effects of different types of music on a person’s heart rate regardless of whether or not their hypothesis was “right”. Proving the hypothesis is what drives the experiment, but if the hypothesis isn’t proven, the experiment has not failed. It has only moved the student in a different direction with their questions and thinking. In so many respects it is the same for the student investigating a word. This student looks at the morphological relatives found (the words that share a common ancestor AND the base element’s spelling) and writes those words as word sums. As the student does this, special attention is paid to the the morpheme boundaries. This is where the student’s understanding of the single final non-syllabic <e> as well as suffixing conventions come into play. For example, let’s say the student was writing a word sum for <describing>. If the student wrote the word sum as <de + scribe + ing –> describing>, I would know that the student understands the importance of the single final non-syllabic <e>. The <e> is part of the base element in this word. If it wasn’t, then adding the vowel suffix (<-ing>) would force the (then) final <b> on the base to double. The student includes the <e> on the base element to prevent doubling! When the words are all written as word sums, a matrix is created. (Just as there are several kinds of graphs on which to display science data, there are other ways to present word collections as well. A matrix is the one to use when looking at all the elements – affixes and other bases – that can be used with a common base.)
Once the graphs/matrices are made and the students have made a list of observations, it is time to share their findings with a larger group. The student who is presenting at the Science Fair will pull out the journal with the detailed notes and type up a list of procedures, some of the research findings, the hypothesis, the observations and more. Those will be displayed along with the graphs or charts and any pictures on a display board. The student doing the word investigation will decide whether to create a poster, a booklet, a skit type presentation, a video, or some type of digital presentation (perhaps similar to Powerpoint). This person will also go back to their journal with the detailed notes and share the word’s meaning, the attestation date, the language of origin, and other interesting things that were found out about the word’s history. They will also share the matrix they created, the related words, and any observations they have made as they reflected on their investigation. For instance, they may have noticed interesting things about the phonology in this word’s family. Perhaps this word is Hellenic and has a <ph> grapheme that represents a /f/ phoneme. Perhaps there are pronunciation differences in the base of the word family as there is in the family that includes predict, diction, and indictment. The students usually include the word in IPA so they can specifically talk about the grapheme/phoneme relationships.
As each student presents, they walk us through their exploration. They share the most surprising things they found out and ask for questions. Their explorations, whether the kind shared at a Science Fair or the kind shared with fellow word enthusiasts in a classroom, always get great interaction from the audience. The work investigated with this scientific lens is so worthy that audience members can’t help but become engaged themselves and think of their own questions.
It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? I bet some of you are even thinking, “My students can’t do all that.” But given the chance, your students will prove to you that they can. My students begin fifth grade with very little true understanding about our written language. But amazingly, within two to three months of school they are eager to investigate words on their own and in much this way! They are so hungry to be actively involved in their learning! As we continue through the year, they become more and more independent in their pursuit. THIS is what Ella was pointing at when she said that our word work was a lot like what Jacob Barnett was describing. When we investigate words (and conduct science experiments), we “STOP LEARNING AND START THINKING“!
A new group of fifth graders.
A promise to prove that that spelling makes sense.
An introduction to the matrix.
Smiles and head-nods.
The evidence begins stacking up.
Our mission today was to build a matrix using the base word <hope>. I began by asking students to suggest words built from that base. Here is the list we ended up with.
Next I moved to a clear area of the board and wrote the base word. I spelled it out loud as I wrote it. I told the students that when working with words on a matrix or in a word sum, we always spell out the base and the affixes. The look on their faces told me they needed to know why.
I moved to the side and wrote the base <sign> on the board. I said, “This is a free base. It is a word by itself. It does not need an affix to be a word. If it is used all by itself, how is it pronounced?” The students read it as you might expect – /saɪn/. Then I wrote the following word sum: <sign> + <al> –> signal. I said, “Look carefully at what I did. I added a suffix to the base <sign> and the pronunciation of the base changed! In the word <sign>, the <g> represents no sound at all. In the word <signal>, the <g> represents /g/. Now look what happens when I add the prefix <de> to the same base.” I wrote the word sum <de> + <sign> and asked someone to tell me what word we just made. The students now had a look of understanding on their faces when they read the word <design>. The pronounced /s/ in <sign> was now a pronounced /z/. Three words. Three different pronunciations of the base. No change to the spelling of the base. We must spell out morphemes until our word is finished. Then we can look at pronunciation.
Now I went back to building our matrix. I asked for suffixes that could be added directly to our base. Students suggested <-ed>, <-ing>, <-ful>, <-s>, and <-less>. I arranged them in a column since they could all be added directly to the base.
On the matrix you can see that I drew a vertical line to separate <-ful> and <-less> from <-ness> and <-ly>. That is to show that <-ness> and <-ly> would never be added to the base directly. They would only be added to the suffixes <-ful> and <-less>. In this way we can make the words <hopeful>, <hopefulness>, <hopefully>, <hopeless>, <hopelessness> and <hopelessly>. The horizontal line is drawn separating <-ed>, <-s> and <-ing> from <-ful> and <-less> because the suffixes <-ness> and <-ly> cannot be added to the top three suffixes.
Next it was time to talk about writing word sums. What you see below would be read as, “h – o – p – e plus e – d is rewritten as (check the joins) … [at this point the student pauses and checks the places where the two morphemes, in this case a base and a suffix, are being joined. Because we are adding a vowel suffix, the <e> in <-ed> will replace the final <e> in the base. The final <e> in the base then gets crossed out and the reading out loud continues.] … h – o – p – (no e) – ed.” It’s important to say “no <e>” because in doing so we are acknowledging that the final <e> on the base is being replaced. The student realizes it is part of the base, and when deconstructing the word <hoped>, that final <e> needs to resurface.
The plot thickens and so does the understanding.
Next I posed this question to the students. “Why is there only one <l> in <hopefulness> and two in <hopefully>?
There was no hesitation. Using the matrix, the students easily explained that there was one <l> in the suffix <-ful> and one <l> in the next suffix <-ly>.
I used this opportunity to ask if anyone ever had to ask themselves if a specific word had one <l> or two. Many hands went up. We talked about the difference between the free base word <full> and the suffix <-ful>. I asked someone to tell me if <really> had one <l> or two. I said, “This is how you will always know. Simply ask yourself what the base is. Then ask yourself what the suffix is. As you get more and more familiar with suffixes, you will see how they are used over and over with many different bases. And you will begin to realize that unfamiliar words are often made up of familiar parts. So far, you’ve been taught to listen to what words sound like. Now we’re going to add to that and learn to see what words are made of.”
As a final piece I wrote the word <doeing> on the board, pointing out that this was how one of the students had spelled this word yesterday. I asked, “Why is it logical that this student inserted an <e> into this word?” The students recognized that there is an <e> in the related word <does>. I asked for the base of this word and together we built a matrix. With this example I was again able to reiterate what I had said earlier. “You don’t ever have to wonder how to spell <doing> again. Think of what the base is and what the suffix you are adding is. We don’t randomly add letters and we don’t randomly drop them.”
This year I had a high school student who came to my classroom every day to help out. The other day while she was here, two 5th graders shared their poster about the digraph <wr>. They were listing words that began with <wr> and had something to do with twisting and turning. (Wringing, wrench, wrinkle, wrist, …) After the bell rang and the 5th graders left, she turned to me. “Every time I’m in here and these students present like this, I am blown away. This stuff is so cool and interesting! Do they have any idea just how lucky they are to be learning this stuff?” I had to admit that I’m not sure my students realize how unique their situation is.
So today I gave them the opportunity to reflect on our study of orthography. Each student spent 5 or so minutes writing down some of the things they learned. Then I asked them to share. Some were comfortable letting me record their thoughts. Others preferred to give me their thoughts on paper. Here is what some of the students had to say:
~Orthography makes spelling less complicated.
~I used to just write the word. I didn’t know nothing about the word or the base of the word. Not even the prefixes or suffixes. Some words are hard to understand, but this way helped me.
~I learned that the <carn> in carnival has the same meaning as the <carn> in carnivore.
~Syllables are not word sums.
~Orthography is not just learning the meaning of a word.
~Instead of learning how to spell words we learned their history and how they were made, allowing us to sort of understand what they mean.
~Word sums are not found in a dictionary.
~Yes! There were no spelling tests! We worked on something new almost every day! I now know new and harder words.
~I don’t like spelling, but I like orthography.
~Words have connections to other words that we don’t always recognize. Example: lavendar and lava.
~It helps me because I can remember the morphemes, and they help me remember how to spell the word.
~Lots of words have histories and were spelled different back then.
~Words have not just one meaning but multiple meanings.
~Back when some words were spelled a little different, they also had meanings that were a little different than their meaning today.
~Orthography helps you find bases so you know if the words have something in common like in sign and signal.
~I liked this more than spelling because it had more thought in it rather than just memorizing the spelling of a word.
~There is actually a reason words are spelled the way they are.
~I always used songs to remember how to spell words. Now I just need to break them down into morphemes and I can spell the words I don’t know.
~In the past we’d just get words and the teacher would be like, “Make sure to study!” But none of us did. Now we don’t have to study. It just kind of sticks. I can spell much better.
I walked into a classroom last week and had an opportunity to really and truly understand how breaking words into syllables does not help students learn spelling. Let me explain.
The lesson was focused on the base word <male/mal>. There were 10 words written on the board and they were all divided into syllables to aid in pronunciation. I asked if pronunciation or meaning was the most important thing this teacher wanted her students to know about these words. She said meaning. I tried then to point out that by breaking the words into syllables, she had disguised the word parts (morphemes) that HAD meaning.
Here’s an example using the word <malevolent>. The syllable breakdown on the board was <ma + lev + o+ lent>. So how hard have we as teachers just made it for the students to recognize that one of the base words here is <mal> which means bad … or that the other one is <vol> which means will?
Instead of a syllabic breakdown I would suggest an orthographic word sum that looks like this: <mal> + <e> + <vol> + <ent>. In an orthographic word sum, the word is separated into morphemes (a word part with meaning that cannot be made smaller).
With this kind of examination, the students will learn several things. First, once they have researched this word, they will find the meaning of it — not just the general meaning, but the meanings of the morphemes <mal> and <vol>. While researching (using Etymonline), they will also learn the history of the word and these bases.
With teacher guidance they will learn about the connecting vowel <e>. They learn that with two bases in one word, this word is a connected compound (meaning it is a compound word with a connecting vowel between the bases).
Lastly the student will recognize that <ent> is a commonly used suffix (based on previously investigated words with that suffix and also a list of words compiled by students in which <ent> is clearly the suffix). By separating a word into syllables, the suffix <ent> is not recognizable because it is visually paired with an <l>, forming a familiar word <lent>.
None of the syllables in the word <malevolent> have meaning. They do not enhance a student’s understanding of what the word means. What if … instead of having students break words into meaningless parts that may or may not make the rote memorization of the word easier, we have them break words into meaningful parts that the student can then relate to what they know of other words and other spellings? Gina Cooke referred to this process as peeling back the layers of a word in her video called “Making sense of spelling“. What a beautiful way to think about a word and its affixes.
Initially, the teacher said that she wanted her students to be able to pronounce the words. Teaching the students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) would be better suited to this end than syllables anyway.