Shedding Light on Plant Processes

Wow!  It’s been a very busy eight days since I first handed out the scripts for our Photosynthesis Follies.  Yesterday and today we performed for twelve different audiences!  They included almost all of the students in our building and lots of parents and family members.  Over and over again we explained the process of photosynthesis to all those who came to listen.

Back in our classroom, in the chunks of time between those performances, the students took a closer look at the words photosynthesis and transpiration.  They began with basic definitions and then created word sum hypotheses.  Watching the videos it is obvious there is more to discover.  In the first video, Jacob’s research took him in many directions!  He was one of three who rather excitedly asked if he could work on this at home too!  This was the first time the students were off on their own to explore.  The lists of words he found to prove the <ic> suffix and the <photo> prefix are impressive.  He had come across many examples of <syn> as a prefix as well, but didn’t have them all written down.



In this video Zoe is also looking at photosynthesis.  She has found evidence to support her word sum hypothesis  <photo> + <syn> + <thesis>.   Next up is understanding what each morpheme means and how they help us uncover a deeper sense of what photosynthesis is.



In the next video this team of girls came up with some interesting ideas.  It is so second nature for the students to begin with the notion of sounds in words.  I found it interesting that this was one of the few groups that recognized that there is an <e> that was dropped when the suffix <ion> was added.  More investigating will uncover the other morphemes in this word.

The boys in the second half of this clip made a great discovery minutes after my camera battery gave up.  They had found the word <expire> and were comparing it to <transpire>.  I can’t wait to see what comes of this!



What an exciting time.  The students are ready for the challenge of figuring things out on their own.   This is going to be a wonderful year!

Summer School – Good for the Mind and Soul!

Well, four weeks of summer school is coming to an end today.  It has been a great opportunity to share time and thoughts with a wider audience than usual.  Students in my classes ranged from entering 5th grade to high school.  Together we explored four different topics.  My two previous posts explain some of the cool things we learned during the Orthography class.  Besides Orthography, I read aloud, we all learned to write in script, and the students learned the technique used in Ukrainian Egg decorating.

In the “Stop, Drop, and Listen” class, I read Because of Mr. Terupt and Twerp.  Both gave us moments in which we couldn’t keep silent about what was happening.  Both made us laugh out loud, feel anger and frustration, and lower our eyes in profound shock and sadness.  It’s definitely a sign of a great book when the listeners don’t really want to hear me say, “That’s it.  The end.”  But then, with a good book, it isn’t ever completely over.  The characters are always there with you.  Things they said and did will pop up in your mind to connect your life to theirs again and again.

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In the “Real Script” class, we enjoyed using a new pen hold, a fountain pen, and writing on unlined paper!  We learned interesting words like minuscule, majuscule, ligature, swash and flourish.  The solid block of time each day to practice really made a difference in learning to make our pens dance!  It is suddenly fun to write again!




In the “Ukrainian Egg Decorating” class, I was once again delightfully surprised at the beauty that was created.  I have offered this class for at least 12 years now.  Many of the participants have taken it two or more times.  It’s one of those things that is both focused and relaxing.  It requires one to slow down, think ahead, be flexible with any preconceived designs, and be ready for the final reveal as the beeswax is removed in the final stages.  Yes, we lost a few eggs along the way, but that is also another one of those life lessons — things happen!

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All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to involve myself with students in this way.  Summer school is a good thing!

Who You Gonna Call? Mythbusters!

After a delightful discussion today regarding our treasured Skype visit with Michel on Friday, our small group of orthographers decided that we are indeed mythbusters!  Early last week we busted the myth that <tion> is a suffix, and now we have busted the myth that <ial> is a suffix!  It feels great to bust through our old misunderstandings and see words clearly for what they are.

Last Friday, Michel explained about connecting vowels.  We didn’t have as much trouble identifying the connecting vowels in tutorial, aerial, and memorial, as we did with the words racial, facial, and residential.  The difference is what happens when the connecting vowel <i> follows the <c> or the <t> in those words.  The letters <c> and <t> represent different phonemes in those cases than they do in the base words race, face, and resident.  What we learned is that a connecting vowel doesn’t always syllablic.

In our search to figure out if <ial> was a suffix or not, we looked at word searcher for words we knew that ended with an <ial>.  Then we tried to find evidence by finding the base of each word.  Along the way we were mislead by an entry in Etymonline (residential + -ial) and a similar one in an online dictionary.  But after looking at the Toolkit and talking with Michel, we understand about connecting vowels.  At the workshop Pete Bowers led, he reminded us over and over that we can’t just rely on one resource because, after all, human beings made each and every resource, and as human beings are all subject to error!  Here is the list of words we researched and our evidence that they, in fact, have an <al> suffix.

We were wondering whether <ial> was a suffix.  After two days of research, these are some of our hypotheses.

We hypothesize that in the following words <i> is a connecting vowel and <al> is the suffix:
–> <aer> + <i> + <al>
tutorial –>
<tutor> + <i> + <al>
–> <memor> + <i> + <al
residential –>
<reside> + <ent> + <i> + <al>
–>  <differ> + <ent> + <i> + <al>
–>  <race> + <i> + <al>
–> <face> + <i> + <al>
–>  <office> + <i> + <al
–> <finance> + <i> + <al>

We hypothesize that in the following words, the <y> is changed to an <i> and an <al> suffix is added:
–> <bury/i> + <al>
–> <try/i> + <al>
–> <artery/i> + <al>

We hypothesize that in the following words, there is an <al> suffix:
–> <imperi> + <al>
–> <soci> + <al>
–> <seri> + <al>

This led to a revised version of our matrix:


Today we spent our time looking at several matrices and noticing how pronunciation in a base sometimes shifts when a suffix is added to that base.  We looked at tempest and tempestuous, real and reality, and heal and health.  Looking at matrices also gave us opportunity to talk about “checking the joins” and what that means.

Great Questions Are Especially Fun To Answer!

Well, I’m back from an intense, yet exhilarating 3 day workshop on Structured Word Inquiry. In the serene setting of Wolfe Island, Canada, Pete Bowers enthusiastically convinced the participants by use of evidence that the language we have been taught to think of as quirky, nonsensical, irregular and incomprehensible, is in fact a well ordered writing system that adheres to rules.  Now, these are not rules with exceptions (one thing many of us have been erroneously taught), but rules that do not allow exceptions.   It turns out that the English language has structure that we can count on and spellings that we can explain by means of scientific inquiry.  How refreshing!


I left the workshop with a better understanding of how to turn word inquiries into focused lessons, as well as how to more effectively use the resources available to me.  In other words, my curiosity is super charged!  I’m looking forward to the question I can’t answer straight away.  I’m looking forward to being part of the search  and to listen to students draw conclusions based on evidence gathered.  I’m looking forward to my classroom being a place where we celebrate words, their meanings, and our new understandings of their spellings.

With all of that super charged enthusiasm surrounding me, imagine my delight when checking my email upon my return and finding a message from a student.  It seems Hailee was writing a story.  While writing, she began wondering about the word <especially>.  She wondered why the <l> was doubled.  She knew that in monosyllablic words that have a single vowel in front of a final consonant, the final consonant is doubled.  But she also knew that that was not the case in <especially>.

So … in response to Hailee’s excellent question …

The first thing I did  was to think of a word sum hypothesis.  I recognize the word <special>, so I can guess that <e> is a clip of <ex> and is a prefix.  Besides, that would make sense that if something is referred to as <especially>, it is being pulled “out” as being extra special or being set aside as being extra special.

And because I recognized <special>, I suspect that <ly> might be a suffix.  So far my hypothesis is  <e> + <special> + <ly>.  But then I wondered about <special>.  Is that the base, or can I peel off another affix.

At this point I went to etymonline and looked up <especially>.  This is what I found:

There’s my proof that <ly> is a suffix.  (And that is also a big clue to the answer to Hailee’s question – but I’ll explain better at the end.)
From there I clicked on <especial>.

That gave me an idea that perhaps <special> might not be the base.  So then I clicked on <species>.

If you notice, <species> comes from the Latin word <species> and is related to <specere> meaning to look at, to see, behold. (Which also fits with what we think of when we think of something as special!  Now, if you remember that Old Grouch taught us that <ere> is a latin suffix, that means the base of <species> and <special> and <especially> is <spec>!

Back to my hypothesis about it’s word sum.  I’m going to change it to <e> + <spec> + <ial> + <ly>.

Just to make sure that <ial> is indeed a suffix, I went to Word Searcher and put in <ial$>.  Three words I found that have <ial> as a suffix are burial (<bury> + <ial>), facial (<face> + <ial>), and partial ( <part> + <ial>).  Since this post, my students and I have done further research and discovered that <ial> is NOT a suffix.  The suffix is <al>.  The <i> in some words is a connecting vowel.  In other words it was once a <y> and has been changed to an <i> before adding an <es> suffix.  In other words the <i> is part of the base.

Phrew!  Now to answer Hailee’s question about the double <l>.  As you can see, there is an <l> in the final position of the suffix <al> and an <l> in the initial position of the suffix <ly>, so the <l> has not been doubled.  NOW in a word like stopping, the base is <stop> and the suffix is <ing>, and when we add that suffix, we do indeed double the consonant<p> because of the reason Hailee brilliantly stated in her question.  When I sent a reply to Hailee, I also asked her to write word sums and then to create a matrix for the base <spec>.  Below is her matrix.


The next wonderful thing that came from all this was that I presented this matrix to my summer school orthography students and asked them to write word sums.  Then we had a great discussion about “checking the joins”.  That means that when adding suffixes, we may need to apply some suffixing rules and make some spelling adjustments.  The students became familiar with the structure of a matrix and how the suffixes are arranged in a particular order to accommodate the spelling of many words.

Thanks Hailee!  And keep the questions coming!

This Is How We Investigate Words!

My fifth grade students had the privilege of working with a class of fourth graders recently!  We wanted to show them how we investigate words by actually teaming them up with fifth graders and involving them in an investigation.  In recent weeks, the fourth graders have been studying the human body and its systems.  We asked them to bring some words that they would like to know more about.  It was decided that we would investigate the words <ventricle>, <aorta>, <atrium>, <circulation>, and <digestion>.  Students went off in pairs to begin their investigations.   I walked around the room, wondering what the fifth graders were explaining to the fourth graders and how they were approaching this task.  For many it begins with a hypothesis…

The students worked for about 50 minutes following leads, taking notes, finding evidence to either prove or disprove their initial hypothesis, and talking with their partner about making sense of what they were finding.

One week later we met again for 60 minutes.  For the first 30 minutes, the groups reviewed their previous findings and continued with their investigations.  During the second 30 minutes, I asked the students to get in five larger groups (representing each of the five words investigated).  Now the task was to compare the discoveries each of the smaller groups had made.  This day was busy with discussion.  There was the initial discussion of each group’s hypothesis and the explanation for it, as well as discussions about the evidence collected to prove suffixes and prefixes!  On this day, the fourth graders didn’t hesitate to take part.

Two days later we met for the third and last time.  I asked the groups to present their discoveries.  They were given the first 30 minutes to prepare what they would say and who would do the talking.  A few groups still had questions regarding their word, so I told them to present their current findings and to note that they still had questions to be answered.

One of the biggest things we have learned doing orthography is that we must remain open to the idea that at some point we may find more evidence that could change our hypothesis about certain words.  In other words, we dig as deep as we can with the evidence we uncover and our current understanding of it.  When we uncover more evidence, it alters our past findings and broadens what we understand about our language.  This is what is so exciting about orthography!

In this first video you will hear their findings about the words <ventricle> and <aorta>.  It was particularly interesting how the last four letters in <ventricle> brought recognition of several known suffixes.  There was <ic>, <cle>, <le>, and <icle>.  The groups spent a lot of time sorting all that out to come to a conclusion.

These are the matrices that the groups created for each of the words.


In this second video you will hear their findings about the words <atrium> and <circulation>.  With both these words there were ties to discoveries made earlier this semester.  Not too long ago, a student found that the suffix <ine> was referred to as a chemical suffix.  We looked on the period table and noticed that there were quite a few chemicals with that as a suffix.  We also noticed that the suffix <ium> was used a lot.  When the word <atrium> was being considered, the students remembered that discussion and began by finding evidence that <ium> is a suffix in this word as well.

Looking at the word <circulation>, the fifth grades remembered when they investigated the word <circumference>.  At that time they had decided that the base element was <circum>.  These two words have so much meaning in common, that they began to look for evidence that would connect the two words.

These are the matrices that the groups created for each of the words.


In this last video you will hear their findings about the word <digestion>.  What was interesting with this group of orthographers was that they were mislead for a while by the definition of digest.  They were, of course, thinking of the digestive system of the human body.  They were unaware of the well known concept of a “Reader’s Digest”.  It was a struggle for them to see what these two uses of the word <digest> had in common.

This is the matrix that the group created.

What a great experience this was for everyone.  We all learned new things about the meaning and structure of words.  We didn’t walk away with dry definitions to memorize, but rather images of what words mean.  It is much easier to remember that the atrium is an upper chamber of the heart when you picture an atrium in a hotel which has an open view to the sky.  Contrast that with the ventricles being the bottom chambers of the heart.  The image of a stomach or belly will help us all remember that the ventricles are in the belly of the heart!

What Have We Learned So Far?

I was talking with a teacher the other day about orthography.  She expressed an interest in trying some things but wasn’t sure where to begin.  My students and I have only been investigating words for three months.  We’ve learned so much that I had to pause before I answered her question.  And then I answered it like this … “Let me ask my students.”

So yesterday I asked them to brainstorm a list of things that they had learned and felt were important to know when investigating words.

It is obvious to me that my students enjoy orthography.  As we have investigated words and talked about morphemes, etymology, and phonemes, the students have gained confidence in themselves as word scientists, but also in a language they once had no hope of understanding.

The students have become so comfortable talking about free and bound bases.  Recognizing that bound bases are there, buried in words is so interesting!  They’ve always been there, but before this, we weren’t trained to look for them. My favorite line is at the end of the third video, when Maia admits that it is fun discovering a word’s history and word sum for yourself.  The teacher doesn’t have to know all the answers.  In fact they enjoy knowing that I don’t know ahead of time what they will find!

In this last video I specifically asked the students to describe how orthography has helped them.    As usual I love their candid responses.  For most, they feel that they are better spellers.  And in some respects they are.  Spelling errors have not disappeared from their work, but the approach we take when discussing the errors is completely different.  It is this awareness and learning to trust that spelling needs to follow rules, show relationships,  and make sense that will help spelling skills strengthen.

I love the fact that my students are learning spelling based on meaning and making sense, and not merely as a memorization task.  A few mentioned that they feel like they understand words and spellings without having had to work so hard at it.  The memorizing of spelling lists was daunting for some – a week of gimmicks, silly songs, and practice tests.  As you can hear in their voices, with orthography the joy and intrigue multiplies every day.

Manure for the Mind!

Recently, the students have been investigating words related to our study of the American Civil War.  In our last post students explained what they understood about some of the words.  One of the comments we received on that post was from Old Grouch, our true Real Spelling friend from France.  Since one of the words investigated was <emancipation>, and the students had found this compound word to be made up of the bound bases <man> and <cip>, Old Grouch playfully replied using many words that share those two bases.

He began his comment like this, ”  I anticipate that they won’t need a mandate to participate in manufacturing a manual of these bound bases.”  What fun we have had with that!  The students have each made a list of the words in his comment that share the base <man> and the ones that share the base <cip>.  Then the research began.  How does knowing the meaning of the base element in a word help us understand the meaning of the word?

Some of the words really gave us pause to think, while others were more obvious in their meaning connections.  Overall, it was a very bright week in the classroom (light bulb moments were happening in proliferation!)  The following videos focus on the words with the base <man> .


Stepping into a Deeper Understanding of Words.

Students have begun research on the American Civil War.  They are all researching Abraham Lincoln, and they are each researching both a particular person who was alive at the time and a specific battle or Civil War term (uniforms, artillery, medicine, etc.).  This week, we began talking about the research.  I also began lecturing, and they began taking notes.  Our discoveries are being shared, and the adventure of investigating a significant event in the history of our country has begun!

A new topic of study always lends itself well to word investigations.  The students practice their investigation skills and broaden their understanding of the topic at the same time.  This week the class was split into five groups.  The words investigated were <civil>, <slavery>, <abolish>, <immigration>, and <emancipation>.  The video clips below feature the words <civil>, <slavery>, and <abolish>.

<Civil> …

<Slavery> …

<Abolish> …

One of our last orthography investigations was that of comparing a word as it is split into word sums and into syllables.  The general consensus was that if we want to understand a word’s meaning, syllables  confuse the issue, whereas word sums help us isolate the base element.  The base element, of course, is the central kernal of meaning in a word.

When the students approached the task of investigating these words, they spent much less time creating word sum hypotheses.  They have internalized the difference between dividing a word into syllables and dividing a word into word sums.  When I went around asking about their word sums, their hypotheses was based on known prefixes and suffixes!  I smiled a big inward smile.

Syllables vs Word Sums – The Understanding Continues

Having spent so many years clapping out words and breaking them into syllables in order to memorize spellings, my students are slowly making the transition to writing word sums instead.  Today I asked them to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle.  One side was to be headed ‘Syllables’ and the other ‘Word Sum’.  Then they were to look back in their Orthography notebooks at all of the words we have investigated.  They were to choose a bunch of those words and write each two ways.  On one side they were to divide the word by syllables and on the other side to write a word sum.  Then I asked them to talk to a partner about what happens to the word parts that have meaning when we break words into syllables.

As I listened in on the conversations, I was pleased.  This was a necessary step in the letting go of old habits.  They had to prove to themselves that word sums left meaningful word parts (morphemes) intact, whereas breaking a word into syllables just left them with letter groupings that had little or no meaning.  Allison pointed out that when <congregation>, <condensation>, and <integration> were broken into syllables, they all appeared to have a <tion> final suffix.  If the <t> is left attached to the <ion>, then the base or any suffix preceding the final suffix is harder to spot.

After the chance to discuss data in small groups, we had a large group sharing of the discoveries.  Maia pointed out that when <abnormality> is split into syllables, <mal> becomes an obvious word part.  We know that <mal> means bad, and that has nothing to do with <abnormality>, so in this case, syllables confuse the reader with incorrect morphemes.  Kolby made a great point when he talked about the word <unknown>.  If we don’t learn to recognize the base element of this word, we might not realize that there is a <w> in the word.  We certainly don’t hear it when we say the word!

Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

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.