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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 2

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

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

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

 

Day 3

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

 

Day 4

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

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

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

 

Day 5

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

 

Day 6

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

 

Day 7

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

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

Here are the videos sharing the investigative work they did.

 

 

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

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

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

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

“Stop Learning and Start Thinking”

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!

 

 

Phonology is something … but it isn’t EVERYTHING!

It is a hard-to-believe concept, but it’s true.  Words do not have the spellings they have so that we know how to pronounce them.  Words like busy, does, piano, action, and pretty prove that.  The truth is that words are spelled the way they are to represent their meaning.  That’s such a foreign idea to so many.  “If that was true, wouldn’t we teach that to children who are just learning to read?”  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the majority of schools don’t.  So why do we resist believing this obvious truth?

When I first began studying orthography and learning Structured Word Inquiry, I was skeptical myself.  I wondered what people in this community meant when they said that spelling represented meaning and not pronunciation.  How can that be?  I learned to spell by “sounding words out” – by pronouncing them.  Sometimes I pronounced them in unnatural ways so that I could remember the spelling (Wed – nes – day  or  ap – pear – ance, both with parts pronounced unlike they are in the whole).  I knew what the words meant, but that didn’t have anything to do with the spelling, did it?  I learned to spell one word at a time, twenty or so words a week.  I was pretty good at rote memorization.  I also studied definitions right out of the dictionary.  They didn’t always make sense to me, but because they didn’t, I didn’t know how to reword them.  I found out when my children went to school that times haven’t changed much in this regard.

I remember when my son was in high school and had to be able to match up a list of words to their definitions.  I offered to help him study.  That was when I realized that he had figured out a system to pass the test without having learned anything useful.  If I read the word, he could give me the first four words of the definition.  If I read the definition, he could tell me the first four letters of the word the definition would match up with on the test.  Blech! He became very annoyed with me when I pointed out how useless this test was.  “Mom!  It doesn’t matter.  I have to pass the test tomorrow.  Go away.  I’ll study by myself.”

One thing is for sure.  He was smart enough to know that passing the test didn’t hinge on him actually understanding anything.  I was sad, but remembered cheating my own learning in the same way as I went through schooling years.  I didn’t cheat my learning to the extent my son did, but cheat it I did.  Neither of us were taught to look to the word for meaning – we had learned that spelling and meaning were two separate activities and rote memorization was the only way to handle them in order to pass the test.

Recently Oxford Dictionaries posted the ten most frequently misspelled words in their Oxford English Corpus (which they describe as “an electronic collection of over 2 billion words of real English that help us see how people are using the language and also shows us the mistakes that are most often made”) .  Seeing as I spend a fair amount of my teaching life looking at misspelled words, I took a look, wondering if I could predict the words that made the list.  As I was clicking, my mind was betting that the people who misspell these words (whichever they were), had an education like mine and have been taught to “sound out words” and not to even consider morphology or etymology as they relate to a word’s spelling.

Here is their list:
*accomodate (accommodate)
*wich (which)
*recieve (receive)
*untill (until)
*occured (occurred)
*seperate (separate)
*goverment (government)
*definately (definitely)
*pharoah (pharaoh)
*publically (publicly)

Once you begin to study orthography and use Structured Word Inquiry, it doesn’t take long to see how easily the above spelling errors could be avoided altogether.  The people misspelling these words do not understand the spelling – have not been taught to understand the spelling.  Let’s look closer at each of these.  Along the way I’ll point out the information that would actually help a person understand and remember these spellings.

accommodate   (*accomodate)

meaning:
Before we talk about spelling, it’s always important to talk about how the word is used.  What does it mean?  I could talk about the fact that my classroom can accommodate 30 students, meaning that the space is adequate to fit that many students.  I could also use it if I was talking about accommodating the needs of a student who has a broken leg.  In that sense, I am fitting the needs of the student by perhaps getting a different type of desk.

morphology:
A person without any understanding of morphology might be wondering, “Is it two <c>’s and one <m>, or is it one <c> and two <m>’s?”  That person might even write the word down on a piece of paper with several different spellings to see which one looks right.

Here’s what you understand when you understand morphology.  All words have structure.  That structure will include a base element and perhaps affixes.  A base element will either be free (doesn’t HAVE to have an affix) or bound (MUST have an affix).

Let’s look at the structure of <accommodate>.  This word consists of four morphemes:  two are prefixes, one is a base, and one is a suffix.  Its structure is <ac + com + mode/ + ate>.

The first prefix is <ac->, and it is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> “to”.  When a prefix is assimilated, it means that the final letter in the prefix might change to better fit phonologically with the first grapheme of the next morpheme in the word.  In this case, the original form of the prefix is <ad-> “to”.  Seeing as the next morpheme begins with a <c>,  the <ad-> assimilated to <ac-> to better match the phonology of that <c>.

The second prefix is <com->, and it is an intensifying prefix.  That means that it brings a sense of force or emphasis to this word.  There are people who have learned this prefix and will tell you that it means “together”.  Well, it does bring that sense to some words we find it in.  But there are prefixes that can also be intensifiers, such as this one!

etymology:
The base element of this word is <mode>.  It is a free base element from Latin modus “measure, manner”.  This base can also be found in words like:

modify, modular, accommodation, model, modest, and yes, even commode!

The suffix is <-ate>.  It is a verbal suffix.

Let’s put the morphemes together and understand this spelling:  <ac + com + mode/ +ate –> accommodate>.  If you stop yourself from thinking of there being a double <c> and instead think of the prefix <ac> plus the prefix <com> plus the base <mode (replace the <e>)> plus <ate>, you will have spelled this word with very little problem.  At the same time, you will understand that the denotation of this word is “to fit with emphasis”.  Compare that denotation with a connotation (how the word is used now), and you will have the spelling AND the meaning, and understand both!

phonology:
It is important to recognize that pronunciations are affected by many things.  I will include a generally accepted pronunciation for each of these words.  But please know that there may be pronunciation variations in different parts of the country / world.  The pronunciation is /əˈkɑməˌdeɪt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<accommodate>
/əˈkɑməˌdt/

It is interesting to note that the first <o>, which is stressed, has a different pronunciation than the second <o>, which is unstressed.

  

which   (*wich)

meaning:
We often use the word ‘which’ when we are searching for more information about one or more things or people in a specific group.   One might ask, “Which book is yours?”

morphology: 
This word is a free base.  It has no affixes.

etymology:
To understand the spelling of this word, we need to look at its etymology.  I have several sources I use when researching words.  One of my favorites is Etymonline, but I also have copies of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

This word is Old English in origin. According to Etymonline, it was spelled both hwilc (West Saxon, Anglian)and hwælc (Northumbrian).  (Notice that the <hw> is now <wh>).  It is short for hwi-lic “of what form”.  It is interesting to note that in early Middle English there were two other forms (hwelch and hwülch).  They later lost their <l> and became hwech and hwüch.  Both of those spellings disappeared in late Middle English.

When you understand that the <h> has always been part of this word, and that in fact, it used to be the first letter, it is easier to remember that it is STILL part of this word.  It is pretty obvious that those who misspelled this word used phonology alone.  But its spelling takes us back to Old English and the important evidence that the <h> has always been part of this word.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /wɪtʃ/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<which>
/wɪ/

 

receive  (*recieve)

meaning:
This word generally means to be given, presented with or be paid for something.  I receive a pay check.  I have received several awards.  I received help from my neighbor.

Now I’m willing to bet you are already thinking, “i before e except after c … blah, blah, blah”.   I came across an article by The Washington Post recently.  To read it, CLICK HERE.  It seems a statistician named Nathan Cunningham plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to check out this age old rule.  He found that in words with a ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ sequence, <i> came before the <e> almost 75% of the time.  So then he checked for the “except after ‘c’ part”.  He found that in words with a ‘cie’ or ‘cei’ sequence, ‘cei’ occurred only 25% of the time.  That leaves 75% of that group of words to be exceptions!  So much for that rule! Yup!  The rule with lots and lots of exceptions.  And as any good researcher will tell you, if your rule has a lot of exceptions, you need a new rule!

Besides wasting time memorizing a rule that you can’t count on statistically, there is another reason to abandon the “i before e” rule.  It simply doesn’t take into consideration what else is important about a word – like its morphology and its etymology!  Let’s get out of the land of ‘hit and miss’ and look at this word seriously.

morphology:
Based on other words I have investigated, I might make a hypothesis about this word’s structure like this:  <re + ceive –> receive>.  I know that in words such as recall, reclaim, and refill, <re> is a prefix.  It could be a prefix in this word too, although I need specific evidence pertaining to this word to be sure.  I need to look at where this word comes from – its etymology.

etymology:
This word has come into English by way of Old North French receivre.  Further back, it is from Latin recipere  (re– “back” + cipere, combining form of capere “to take”).  Looking back in time, this word has had a meaning and sense of “regain, recover, take in, admit”. When I look closer at the Latin verbs capere and its combining form cipere, I find other words that share this base <ceive>:

~perceive (<per-> has a sense of “thoroughly”, thus when you perceive something, you are thoroughly taking it in in order to comprehend it),
~deceive (<de-> has a sense of “from”, thus when someone deceives you, they take from you – they cheat you),
~conceive (<con-> is an intensifying prefix, meaning it gives emphasis to the base, thus when someone conceives either an idea or a baby, they are taking something in and holding it)
~transceiver (which is a relatively new word – 1938, created by combining transmitter and receiver).

So what we learn from this word’s history is that its spelling has been fairly consistent since the 1300’s.  No gimmicky rhymes needed.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ɹəˈsɪv/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<receive>
/ɹəˈsɪv/

It is interesting to note that the final <e> is non-syllabic and is preventing this word from ending in a <v>  (no complete English word ends in a <v>).

 

 

until  (*untill)

meaning:
This word means “up to (either an event or a point in time)”.  If you say, “I will wait until you call,”  it is functioning as a subordinating conjunction. If you say, “We swam until 5:00,” it is functioning as a preposition.

morphology:
This word is a free base in Modern English.  It has no affixes.  It might be tempting to identify the <un> as a prefix, but all you have to do is compare the etymology of the <un> in this word to that of the <un-> in words like unhappy and unzip.  They do not share ancestors, nor do they share denotations.

etymology:
This word, as most, has an interesting story.  The verb ’till’  meaning “to cultivate the soil” was first attested in the 13th century.  It is from Old English tilian “cultivate, tend, work at”.  There is a thought that the idea of cultivating and having a purpose and goal may have passed into Old English with the word ’till’ meaning “fixed point”.  It was then converted into a preposition meaning “up to a particular point”.  ‘Until’ was first attested in the 13th century.  The first element <un> is from Old Norse *und “as far as, up to”.  (The asterisk next to the Old Norse spelling means it is reconstructed.)  So when we put the two parts of this word together, we get <un + til –>  until>  “up to a particular point”.  The use of ’til’ is short for ‘until’.

It isn’t about “one ‘l’ or two”.  It’s about the word’s story.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ənˈtɪl/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<until>
/ənˈtɪl/

 

occurred  (*occured)

meaning:
If something has occurred, it has happened.  It could be an event or even a thought.

morphology:
Someone who is misspelling this word, doesn’t understand its morphology.  That would include how suffixing conventions are applied.  The structure of this word is <oc + cur + ed –> occurred>.  Notice that the final <r> on the base was forced to double when the vowel suffix <-ed> was added.  This happened because of the position of the stress in this word.  The stress is on the second syllable – the one closest to the suffix.

etymology:
This word was borrowed from Latin occurrere “run towards, run to meet”.  The prefix <oc-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ob-> bringing a sense of  “towards”.  The base is <cur> “run “.   This base is seen in present day words including curriculum, current, recur and concur.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /əˈkɜɹd/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<occurred>
/əˈkɜɹd/

It is interesting to note that the initial <o> is unstressed and that affects its pronunciation.

 

 

separate   (*seperate)

meaning:
This word generally means to divide or cause to be apart.  I might separate old coins from new coins.

morphology:
Growing up I remember this word being one that I could never get right.  The reason I misspelled it time after time is because all I had was its pronunciation to work with.  Had I known its morphology and etymology, I would have had a better chance of remembering its spelling.  First, let’s look at its morphology.  The structure of this word is <se + pare/ + ate –> separate>.

etymology:
The prefix <se-> has a sense of “apart”.  The base element <pare> is from Latin parare with a denotation of “make ready, prepare”.  The suffix <-ate> is a verbal suffix in this word.  The base element in this word, <pare>, is also seen in words like:

~apparatus (The prefix <ap-> is an assimilated form of the prefix <ad-> and brings a sense of “to”.  Apparatus helps to make things ready or be prepared.)
~preparation (The prefix <pre-> brings a sense of “before”.  When you prepare, you make things read before you need them.)
~pare (This is a free base that means to “trim or cut close”.  Again we see the denotation of “make ready” in the image of this word’s action.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈsɛpɹət/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<separate>
sɛpɹət /
It is interesting to note that the <a> is not typically pronounced in this word.  The final <e>, which is the final letter in the <ate> suffix, is non-syllabic.  That means it is not pronounced either.

  

government  (*goverment)

meaning:
A government is a way to regulate or control members or citizens  of a particular region (state or country) or of an organization.  In the United States, we have a federal government with different branches that creates laws for the entire country, and we also have state governments making decisions for each of the fifty states.

morphology:
Why does this word get misspelled?  Again, it is because of the way it is pronounced.  So let’s look at this word’s morphology and phonology as we have with every other word so far.  The structure of this word is <govern + ment –> government>.  People who leave out the <n> in this word, don’t think about the word’s structure.  The base shares its spelling with all words in its word family.  See the matrix below.

etymology:
The base element <govern> was first attested in the late 13th century, and at that time it meant “rule with authority”.  It is from Old French governer which meant “steer, be at the helm of, rule, command”.

phonology:
The pronunciation is /ˈgʌvəɹmənt/.  Here is the phoneme / grapheme correspondence:

<government>
gʌvəɹmənt/

It is interesting to note that the <n> is not typically pronounced.  This is evidence that it is important to have knowledge of a word’s morphology and etymology when trying to understand its spelling!

 

 

definitely  (*definately)

meaning:
When used, this word is intended to remove all doubt.  I will definitely watch your dog this weekend.

morphology:
The structure of this word is <de + fine/ + ite + ly –> definitely>.  The single final non-syllabic <e> is replaced by the <-ite> suffix in the final spelling.  The suffix <ite> is adjectival, but the addition of the suffix <ly> makes this word adverbial.

etymology:
This word is from Old French definir, defenir  “to finish, conclude, come to an end, determine with precision”.  Before that it came directly from Latin definire “to limit, determine, explain”.  The prefix <de-> brings a sense of “completely” and the base <fine> has a denotation of “to bound, limit”.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈdɛfənətli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<definitely>
/ˈdɛfənətli/

It is interesting to note that both <i>’s are unstressed which affects their pronunciation.  The final <e> on the suffix <-ite> is predictably unpronounced.  The final <y> on the <ly> suffix also has a predictable pronunciation.

 

 

pharaoh  (*pharoah)

meaning:
A pharaoh is an ancient Egyptian ruler.

morphology:
This is a free base with no affixes.

etymology:
This word has an interesting trail to follow.  It was first attested in Old English as Pharon.  Earlier it was from Latin  Pharaonem.  Earlier yet it was from Greek Pharao. Even earlier it was from Hebrew Par’oh.  But its origins are in understandably Egyptian Pero’ where it meant “great house”.  Note that the spelling sequence of ‘pharao’ was present in Greek and in Latin.  That is the spelling sequence we currently see.  Once again the spelling represents where the word came from and what it means, not how it is pronounced!

phonology:
This word is pronounced
/ˈfɛɹoʊ/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<pharaoh>
fɛɹ/

It is interesting to note that the <ph> represents /f/.  This is a signal that this word has a Greek heritage.

 

publicly   (*publically)

meaning:
When something is done publicly, it is done for all to see.

morphology:
The structure of this word is simply <public + ly>.  The <ly> suffix can be an adverbial one.  The misspelling listed shows a misidentification of structure.  There are many words that actually HAVE that structure, including basically, magically, comically, and tropically.  This brings us to an important point!  Just because two things are pronounced the same, it doesn’t mean they are spelled the same.  It doesn’t take much time or effort to check with a reference book!

etymology:
The word ‘public’ was first attested in the last 14th century.  Earlier it was used in Old French public.  It comes directly from Latin publicus “of the people, of the state, common, general”.  The meaning of “open to all in the community” is from 1540’s English.

phonology:
This word is pronounced /ˈpʌblɪkli/.  Here are the phoneme / grapheme correspondences:

<publicly>
/ˈpʌblɪkli/

It is interesting to note the predictable pronunciation of the final <y> of the <-ly> suffix.

 

 

Reflection

Think about the words on this misspelled list.  Everyone of them has a spelling that can be explained by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology , and its phonology.  I’ll say it again … by looking at the word’s morphology, etymology, and its phonology.  Teaching all three is so powerful.

It’s time for schools to change the way they teach children about words and spelling!  Phonology is just ONE ASPECT of a word.  When it is seen as THE ONLY THING (as it is in most every classroom), students are cheated out of the opportunity to understand a word’s story.  And understanding a word’s story is often the thing that connects a word’s meaning to its spelling.  Understanding a word’s meaning leads to understanding the word in context, which in turn increases reading comprehension.  How could it not?

Teaching spelling and reading via phonology alone makes spelling a giant guessing game.  For example, there are a number of graphemes that can represent the phoneme /iː/.  I can think of <ea>, <ee>, <y>, and <ei> off hand.  There are no doubt more.  A student faced with memorizing which grapheme to use in which word based on pronunciation alone is clueless – literally!  That student NEEDS the clues that morphology and etymology provide.  Why not teach a student where to find the information needed in order to make informed decisions about a word’s spelling?

Another huge disadvantage of teaching as if spelling represented only pronunciation is that our students never see for themselves how words are connected to one another.  They miss realizing that each word is a member of a larger family.  The family is full of words that all share a common base with a common ancestry and a common denotation.  Why are words like busy, business, and businesses found on different spelling lists?  Why not present them together so a student can see they are part of the same word family?   Or present them together so the students can internalize an understanding of the suffixing conventions that can happen within a family of words.  The matrices I have created above do just that.  They help us see connections among words that we have not been taught to see before now.

Let’s go back to the list of commonly misspelled words.  Oxford Dictionaries only gave us their top ten, but I’m willing to bet there are hundreds and hundreds of such words in their Oxford English Corpus.  I say, let’s raise the bar for our students.  Let’s give them engaging word work that supplies them with resources for all the clues they need in order to understand a word’s spelling.  What schools have been teaching students during reading and spelling instruction  — phonology alone  —  has not worked for the vast majority of students.  If it had, we would not see the spelling errors we do.  We would not hear adults blaming the English language when they misspell a word or misunderstand a paragraph.  We would not hear parents claim, “I was a terrible speller too” at parent-teacher conferences, as if not having been taught to understand our language is a trait one inherits much like height or hair color.

 

‘UGH’ Can You Hear Me Now?

Over the break I was reading some student writing, and I came upon the word ‘tho’.   It seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about the <ugh> trigraph .  We began by looking at the word <laugh> and identifying the phonemes in this word.  When we looked closely at the letter/phoneme correspondences, the students realized that in the word <laugh>, the  <ugh> trigraph represents /f/.  Then we looked at the word <though>.  When we examined it in the same way, the students realized that in the word <though>, the <ugh> trigraph doesn’t represent a sound at all!

Then I asked the class to make two columns on their paper.  In one column they were to list as many words as they could in which the <ugh> trigraph represented /f/.  In the second column they were to list as many words as they could in which the <ugh> trigraph did not represent a sound at all.  After a bit of independent work time, I asked students to come to the board and write the words they were finding.

This was such a fun activity!  The words on the list in which the <ugh> trigraph did not represent a sound were a source for fascinating discussions. At first we didn’t recognize the word <snowplough>.  Jacob went to the Collins-Gage Dictionary and found that it was an alternate spelling to <snowplow> which we are much more familiar with.  The same thing happened when students found the word <hiccough>.  This time they recognized that an alternate (more familiar spelling) would be <hiccup>.    Many students did not recognize the word <bough> until I read it aloud.  When I talked about decorating with boughs of holly, then the room was filled with, “Ohhh.  Yes.  I know that word.”  The same thing happened with the word <furlough>.   We ended today’s orthography time by reading aloud our lists of words.  Tomorrow we’ll talk more about why the <ugh> trigraph is  in some of the words when it represents no sound.