Do you remember the way you learned new vocabulary words when you were in school? If your teachers were like mine, they said something like, “Here is a list of vocabulary words from our lesson/story/curriculum that I think are important for you to know. Please use the dictionary and write a definition for each. Then use the word in a sentence.” Was that helpful as you moved forward in the lesson/story/curriculum? Yes. Yes, it was. You learned what the word meant for the context you were presented with, and you learned how to use it in a sentence. In this way, if you encountered that word in the future, you might remember what it meant and even be able to use it yourself. For so many years, I thought that was enough. I thought that there wasn’t anything else to know about a word. But I was wrong. I was soooo wrong! Let me illustrate by choosing a word we currently see in the news every day. Imagine that this is the list selected by your teacher as being words you should know to better understand the current health crisis situation.
Here’s what your teacher asks you to do: “Write a definition of each word and then use the word in a sentence.”
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” The coronavirus is causing a pandemic. (I used the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)
If we just stop there, we know something. We can connect that understanding to what we read in the news. But what if we looked more closely at this word? What if we fully investigated this word using Structured Word Inquiry? What more could we gain?
Pandemic: “An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population : a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” According to Etymonline, it was first attested in 1660. Before that it was in Late Latin as pandemus. Before that it was in Greek as pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common”, from pan- “all” and demos “people”. Interestingly enough it is modeled on the word <epidemic> which may be less broad in its reach than a pandemic. The clue to that being the morpheme <pan> “all” being used in <pandemic> versus the morpheme <epi> “among, upon” being used in <epidemic>.
“A disease can be declared an epidemic when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a pandemic, which affects an even wider geographical area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected.”
So an epidemic can become a pandemic, but a pandemic doesn’t become an epidemic. Interesting distinction!
Now that we have an understanding of what this word means, let’s collect some of its morphological and/or etymological relatives. Still looking at the entry for <pandemic> at Etymonline, we see a link to <demotic> and at the end of the paragraph <pandemia>. If we follow the link to <demotic>, we see <democracy>, <demography>, and <endemic>. Before I leave Etymonline to search elsewhere, I try one more thing. I type demos, the Hellenic root of this word into the search bar. When I do that, many of the same words come up. But there is one I didn’t find earlier — <demogogue>. What a worthy addition to this group of morphological relatives.
Let’s take a look at this list:
pandemic — disease outbreak reaching all the people
epidemic — disease outbreak among a group of people demotic — preferring to common people pandemia — epidemic that attacks all people democracy — government by the people democratic — favoring government by the people demography — studying the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people demographic — relating to the statistical characteristics of a specific population of people
endemic — particular to a specific place group of people demogogue — leader seeking political power by pandering to prejudices, fears, and ignorance of the people
Here is the grapheme/phoneme correspondence for <pandemic>:
Noting the denotation of the bound base <deme>, the relationship between all of these words is now obvious. We’ve gone from understanding one word, to understanding ten! Instead of meeting one member of a family, we’ve met the family! We are much more likely to remember them when we meet again!
But have we met all of the members? Why didn’t I come across <pandemonium> when I was looking into this family? It appears to share both <pan> and <dem>, doesn’t it? I can certainly think of pandemonium as a chaotic situation involving people. As changes are happening in the way we are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, it certainly feels like pandemonium! The only way to know for sure is to look at Etymonline.
The first thing I notice is the 1667 spelling of this word. Pandæmonium. Notice the letter after the <d>? That is the Old English letter known as ash. We see that John Milton coined this word putting together Greek pan- “all” and Late Latin daemonium “evil spirit” which is from Greek daimonion “inferior divine power,” and before that from daimōn “lesser god.” We see the same <pan> that we see in <pandemic>, but definitely not the same <deme>!
If we follow the link to <demon>, we find that it was first attested in the 12 c. and at that time meant “evil spirit, malignant supernatural being, devil.” It is from Latin daemon and before that from Greek daimōn “divine power; lesser god.” We have all the evidence we need to prove that the <deme> in <pandemic> is not the same <dem> that we see in <pandemonium>. But is <dem> a base in this word? That determination is something we haven’t collected enough evidence for. So let’s gather a few morphological relatives of <demon>. Below the entry for <demon> we see a list of related words.
Looking at this list of morphological relatives, it is obvious that the base is not <deme> as it is in <pandemic>, but <demon>! And when I highlight the base as I have, it is easy to recognize some very familiar suffixes, isn’t it? And before you point it out, yes, <arch> is a Hellenic base “ruler, leader, chief” and <loge> is also a Hellenic base “discourse, theory, science.”
Before we walk away from this investigation with the idea that pandemic is not related to pandemonium, we need to notice one more thing at Etymonline. It is the Proto Indo European root for both <pandemic> and <pandemonium>. Under the entry for <demotic> we see that Greek demos is from PIE *da-mo- “division,” from root *da- “to divide.” Under the entry for <demon>, we see that Greek daimōn is from PIE *dai-mon- “divider, provider,” from root *da- “to divide.” Looking at the entry for *da- we see this:
So I guess we can say that these two words are distant relatives! Fascinating, isn’t it? So what have we gained by going beyond a dictionary definition of the word <pandemic>? How is what we have learned useful in understanding this word in the context of a current news story? What we have learned not only deepens our sense of this word in this context, it also connects us to related words and prepares us for coming across any words in this family in the future. The spelling ‘dem’ within a word will now be noticed by you and by me. We will see it and pause for a moment considering whether it is the base <deme> having to do with people, the base <demon> having to do with evil spirits, or maybe not a morpheme on its own at all! But the best part is that we have an understanding of those possibilities and will be able to determine which it is relatively quickly and get on with our reading! You might say that Structured Word Inquiry helps you understand what you need to understand in the moment, but then also prepares you for words you will encounter as you read in the future. A quick look in a dictionary just helps you in the moment.
I have just one more intriguing thing to share with you. I came across this article today at Aleteia and couldn’t believe the irony. It is about Saint Corona, whose remains are buried in Anzu, Italy, and who just happens to be one of the patron saints of pandemics. If you’re like me, you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Is that for real?” It is. Read about it HERE. Saint Corona died a tragic and disturbing death at age 16.
Wikipedia St. Corona, abt 1350
I’ve left you with the rest of the list we started with – the list of words related to our current world health crisis. Besides a dictionary definition, what can you find out that would benefit your understanding now and also as you encounter other words in years to come? Structured Word Inquiry affects your reading, your writing, and your enjoyment of learning! If you find out really cool stuff, please share!
Crisis: “A situation that has reached a critical phase.” The spread of the coronavirus has caused a health crisis.
Coronavirus: “any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19 .” There are new cases of the coronavirus in the United States every day.
Contagious: “Transmissible by direct or indirect contact with an infected person.” The coronavirus is extremely contagious.
Quarantine: “A restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease or pests.” People who have been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.
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.
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.
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
We were watching a TED talk about the interesting forms of life found at the bottom of the ocean. The presenter, David Gallo, used the above quote. He was referring to being open to what he might see as he voyaged to the bottom in his submarine, Alvin. The TED talk was fascinating. Gallo’s enthusiasm and excitement kept the attention of my students and myself. He made us feel as if we were on the voyage with him and seeing what he saw. And he got me thinking about the word <voyage>.
Several images popped into my head…
~the name of an old television show my brothers used to watch when I was a child – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”,
~people waving and shouting “Bon Voyage!” to people on large oceangoing boats such as the Titanic.
It got me thinking. In both of those situations the voyage itself is a trip across or down into a large body of water (and in the case of the Titanic, an unintentional “down into a large body of water”). These are major undertakings. What other kinds of journeys are considered to be voyages?
As silly as it sounds, my mind went to another television series, “Star Trek: Voyager”, that my children watched at times during its run from 1995-2001.
And at that point I thought of Voyager I and Voyager II which are the unmanned spacecrafts originally launched in 1977 that are still sending us information from the outer reaches of space! As I was watching the video I have included here, the following words popped out at me. “It’s discovering new things because it’s going where nothing has been before.” That sentiment is similar to what I heard David Gallo use in his TED talk. It was the connection between a voyage, exploration, and discovery.
With a solid idea of how I think of this word, and of how I have heard it used in significant ways, I was ready to explore it further. You see, what I have learned since happening upon Structured Word Inquiry is that there is discovery beyond a word’s current day usage. It is something I now look forward to. It’s like a special gift I used to overlook because I was looking for fancy paper which would make it catch my attention. Instead, the wrapping was the word itself. You might think of it as having been camouflaged in its own spelling!
My first stop is the dictionary that is on my Mac desktop. The definition of <voyage> confirms what I already knew – that a voyage is a trip, generally by sea or space.
Next I check in at Etymonline.
The word <voyage> wasn’t used as a verb until the 15th century, but was used as a noun as early as the 13th century. That is when it was first attested. Before that it was used in Old French, spelled voiage, and used to mean “travel, journey, movement, course, errand, mission, crusade.” As I think of those words, the only two I might link to discovery or exploration are mission and crusade. Further back in time this word existed in Late Latin as viaticum “a journey.” The next note in the entry says that in Classical Latin viaticum referred to the “provisions for a journey.” This is even further away from the sense that is so prevalent in today’s use of the word! Further back in time we see that this word is from via “road, journey, travel.” This piece of information is quite interesting, don’t you think? I have used the word <via> to mean “by way of.” I might say I travel to Madison via highway 12/18. Before I take off down that “road”, I want to see what other resources say about <voyage>.
Next I look in my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
Again we are looking at <voyage> as a noun before it was used as a verb. The entry says that probably before 1300 it was viage “a traveling, journey.” Around 1300 the spelling was veyage; borrowed from Old French veiage, vayage, voiage, vaiage and was used to mean “travel, journey, voyage.” The spelling voyage was first recorded in English in 1527, probably influenced by the spelling of the verb. The spelling of the verb is attested in 1475 in Caxton’s translation of the History of Jason. It was borrowed from Middle French voyager, from the Old French noun, voyage. The dictionary goes on to conclude that <voyager> is probably formed from the English verb voyage + er.
Next stop is the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here I find this word used in 1297 to mean “an act of traveling; a journey by which one goes from one place to another (esp. at a considerable distance). One thing I love about the OED is the examples of this word in actual use. I can read sentences that include this word from as early as 1297. What I find when I do that is that people were taking voyages for many reasons. Some were just heading home. Some were on a pilgrimage which has a different sense then a voyage with a destination. Others were possibly part of those crusades mentioned at Etymonline. A sentence from c1550 states, “Thei..toke their viage toward Rome, destroying all thinges on everie side.” And another from 1564, “The consuls toke then their viage to invade Carthage”. Since these were typically long trips, it would make sense that the people traveled by horse, yet there is another sentence from 1584, “We must take our voyage on foote the space of forty dayes by the waters side”.
And then there are many examples of how this word has been used to refer to trips over water from as early as 1310. From what we know about early explorers, that is not surprising. As I kept reading through the entry, I saw that in 1667, the word was used to mean a journey, but in a different sense. “So stears the prudent Crane Her annual Voiage, born on Windes”. This sentence is from Paradise Lost and is referring to the bird who, while voyaging, is carried by the winds. Here is where the sense and meaning of <voyage> leaves the ground and the water and ventures into the skies! In 1893, the earth itself is referred to as taking a yearly voyage around the sun.
Another interesting use of this word is in a figurative sense to describe certain events of human life and even what happens after life. Here’s an example of this use in a sentence from 1390. ” Fourtiene yer sche was of Age, Whan deth hir tok to his viage”. If my interpretation of this is correct, a 14 year old girl was taken on death’s voyage. Here’s an interesting sentence from 1529. “Yt much more special assistence of god with his christen churche in their spiritual viage”. I wonder if that is in reference to someone’s deepening of faith (spiritual voyage). One more from 1771, “Among our fellow-lodgers at Berwick, was a couple from London, bound to Edinburgh, on the voyage of matrimony”. These examples show this word having a sense that indicates a journey with a goal or destination.
Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life Youth, 1842 (National Gallery of Art)
This is such an interesting word! I feel like I could almost create a timeline to show how it has gone from meaning simply traveling on land, to including water, to journeying in space, and even to have other figurative senses which are vital to a writer’s mind. It’s time to go back to Etymonline and follow that link to Latin via “road, journey, travel.”
The entry is referring to <via> as a preposition “by way of.” It was first attested in 1779 and is the ablative form of via “way, road, path, highway, channel, course.” Further back it is from the Proto-Indo-European root *wegh- “to go, move, transport in a vehicle.” Continuing in the entry we see that this PIE root is also the source for our English word <way>. There are a number of words that include a form of this stem, via “road.” I have encountered this base before and have found it helpful in visualizing a word’s meaning.
obvious – from <ob-> “in front of; against” and viam “way.” When something is obvious, it is right there in your way and you cannot avoid seeing it or dealing with it!
impervious – from <im-> “not”, <per-> “through”, and via “road.” When a surface is impervious (such as blacktop), the water runs off of it because it cannot filter through the road. One of the activities I have done in my classroom to show the difference between an impervious surface and one that is pervious, is to grab a paint tray. I put a piece of felt on the left side (to represent grass and dirt) and leave the other side open (to represent a parking lot surface). Then the student drizzles water from the top. How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the pervious side? How many drops does it take for the water to reach the bottom on the impervious side? It is surprising how much water the piece of felt will hold.
deviate – from <de-> “off, away” and via “way.” When someone deviates from the plan, they are not sticking to the agreed upon path! They are going off in their own way.
previous – from <pre-> “before” and via “road.” We think of something that has happened previously as something that has been on this “path” before – something that has gone this way before.
trivial – from <tri-> “three” and via “road.” This word is one of my favorites because of the following scene I associate with it. At a place where three roads meet, people traveling on those roads might stop and chat. These people are traveling by foot for the most part and no doubt look forward to a bit of friendly conversation. It is a very public place and the topics of conversation are the little things everyone’s life is full of. One might discuss the weather, their business (crops perhaps), politics, or family happenings. And if you are already putting two and two together, you are noticing that these things could be considered trivia!
From 1890 Baby’s Annual Pictures and Stories for Little People. It was published by D. Lothrop Company.
Every time I conduct one of these word investigations, I feel like I have embarked on a voyage of sorts. Not because I began at point A with a question and arrived at an endpoint with an answer, but rather because like the satellites Voyager I and Voyager II, my question has been launched and is still out there. My curiosity is still aflame. My interest is lit and I am receptive to understanding more about any of this when it becomes obvious to me – when it is right there in my path. My smile will only broaden and I will listen attentively. I seek to voyage back in time to consider how a given word was used by the people who spoke it and/or wrote it. I seek to explore its current spelling and understand the significance of the graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. I seek to discover the bigger picture that includes a particular word, but also its relatives, be they morphological or etymological. Think about it. After 40 years, Voyager I and II are still transmitting information to the earth, even though they continuously travel further and further away. We could say, they have boldly gone where no man has gone before! If you are or were ever a Star Trek fan, you will recognize those words. Hmmm. Now I’m thinking about the word <trek>.
“We don’t receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves.” Marcel Proust
Last week my students wrote poems. As I was editing them, one of the errors I saw over and over was the use of <your> when <you’re> was needed. With a recently viewed meme in mind, I wrote the following on the board:
As the students filed in and sat down, the giggles began. Some recognized right away the meaning difference between these two. I asked for a volunteer to share what “your dinner” means with the whole class. Even though I could tell that many understood what each meant, it was interesting to me that there was some struggle in putting that understanding into words. To say that “your dinner” means “your dinner” isn’t very clear, is it? The understanding is so clear in the student’s mind, that they don’t realize they are not communicating that clarity. The student who was defining “your dinner” went so far as to reach her hands out in front of her as if she was handing me a plate of something.
Such an important reminder! I can never forget that even when I am confident that my students understand something, I must give them lots of opportunities to express that understanding either orally or in writing. Expressing oneself with clarity comes with practice!
I asked if anyone could add words to that explanation that would help. A student said, “It’s not my dinner, it’s yours.” That helped because without using the word, it illustrated that the dinner is in “your” possession. Since we have been identifying parts of speech in sentences lately, I asked what kinds of words both “your” and “dinner” were. This is an understanding that is growing, but not fully there yet for all students, so I called on a student that I knew would be able to answer the question. The student identified “your” as a possessive determiner that is announcing the noun “dinner.” Great! A possessive determiner makes sense because we understand that the dinner belongs to someone and that “dinner” is a noun.
Even more students were excited to explain the meaning of “you’re dinner.” The student I called on said easily that “you’re” is short for “you are” so that this phrase is saying that “you will be eaten for dinner!” Anyone who hadn’t been sure of the difference between these two phrases laughed at this point. Students turned to one another and excitedly imagined telling each other that they were the dinner. When it was time to regain their attention, I asked if anyone knew the word we use to name a word like “you’re.” Several could kind of remember how it started but not the word. So I said, “It’s called a contraction.” Among the “Oh, yeah,” comments that I heard, one student in the front blurted out, “You mean like when someone’s having a baby?” I gave the room full of ten-year-olds a moment to laugh uncomfortably before I replied.
“Well, actually, the sense in both situations isn’t that different.”
“Whaaaa?” More giggles and sounds that expressed disbelief.
“When a momma human or animal is giving birth, the muscles contract to push the baby out. When two words like ‘you’ and ‘are’ contract, the letters push together so intensely that one letter pops out. We mark the missing letter with an apostrophe.”
Next I wrote the word ‘contraction’ on the board and asked for a word sum hypothesis.
Looking over what the student had written, I asked if anyone could offer evidence to support the idea of a <con> prefix. Could anyone think of a word with one?
And then someone said, “Contract,” and when he did, one student made a funny face. So I asked if contract was a familiar word. Yes, it was. What does it mean if you sign a contract with someone else? A student replied that it meant there was an agreement between the two people. Great. Now I looked back for the quizzical look I saw a few minutes ago. I asked what the student was thinking. She said, “I was thinking of ‘contract’.” And as she said it I realized that she was putting the stress on the base <tract> instead of the prefix <con>. What a delightful detour this would be!
So we talked about contracting a cold or a disease and how that was an action verb. But when the stress was on the prefix <con>, the word was a noun. We could say that for sure because we could use the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of it. We could talk about a contract.
Because I didn’t want to leave the topic without a few more examples, I wrote two more words on the board that could likewise be read as a noun and a verb, depending on the stress placement.
With ‘record’, the students thought of the verb first with the stress on <cord>. So I let them practice shifting that stress to then recognize the noun ‘record’ which might refer to the time to beat in a race (I want to beat my record of 22 minutes!). I chose ‘combine’ on purpose. I have several students who live on farms. Those were the hands that popped up first on this one. “A combine (stress on the prefix) is a machine used on a farm. It is a noun.”
And, this being such a commonly used verb, most everyone was able to shift the stress to the base <bine> to read the verb “combine.” Several gave examples of how it might be used in a sentence.
Then the very best question came from a student. “If these words look the same, how do you know whether it’s being a noun or a verb?” I thanked this student for giving us one more glorious opportunity to reinforce an important concept. It is how the word is functioning within the sentence. We have to look at where it is in the sentence and how it is functioning to know. Seeing as the next item on our agenda for the day was grammar, I was particularly happy about setting the grammar lesson up in this way!
I was ready to get back to looking at the word sum for <contraction>, when I saw a hand waving in the air. It belonged to someone who is less apt to contribute in class, so I called on him. “What about ‘conscience?’ Does that have a <con> prefix?” I love talking about this word and in particular the base of this word <sci>. The pronunciation is so different in members of its word family, that if you only hear the words conscience, conscious, and science, you might not realize that they even are the same base.
We have talked before about the structure of <science> being <sci + ence> and the base <sci> having a denotation of “know.” So I applied that to <conscience>. Your conscience is that part of you that knows right from wrong. When we say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” it means to rely on those inner feelings that tell you which is a right choice and which is a wrong choice. Then you will know what to do. And then, of course, there is the word <conscious>. When you are conscious, you know what is happening around you. When you are unconscious, you do not! Now back to the word sum for <contraction>.
I stated that we had just come up with a lot of evidence to show that <con> is a prefix in a lot of words, so it is quite plausible to think it might be a prefix in <contraction> as well. Next it was time to think about the next element in the hypothesis, <tract>. I asked if anyone could think of a word with <tract> in it.
Since I hadn’t even gotten to the word I wanted to investigate with them yet, I told them what I knew about this base. (As opposed to looking it up at Etymonline with them.) There are so many side trails we could take with initial questions like this one, that I need to balance when I share my understanding and when I have them dig for the understanding. It has to do with how engaged they are and how long I predict that engagement will last.
I told them that the base <tract> has a denotation of “draw or pull.” Then I asked, “Does a tractor have anything to do with drawing or pulling?” They all nodded yes. “What if your boots have traction on the ice?” Again, they agreed that it would pull on the ice instead of sliding. “When you subtract numbers, is there a sense of pulling down or drawing from the first number and taking some away?” Yes, they could imagine that. “And when we think of abstract nouns, aren’t we thinking of the nouns that aren’t concrete? The ones that have been withdrawn from the concrete nouns? The ones that are separate from material objects such as your chair, desk, and pencil?”
They could see it, but we talked about that denotation being strongest in the words ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’. They had more of a physical sense of pulling and drawing whereas subtract and abstract were more of a mental image of pulling rather than that physical action.
So in the end, it was decided that our word sum hypothesis could make sense based on the fact that we recognized both <con> as a prefix and <tract> as a base. We had already talked about the word <contract>, so we knew that <ion> was a suffix in this word. Now on to the really interesting question for the day!
I asked if anyone had a word sum hypothesis for the word ‘dinner’. As soon as I asked it, I turned to the class and rather excitedly said, “I’ve never thought about where this word comes from or what its word sum will be. We will be learning about it together!” Below is a picture of some of their hypotheses.
There was one more word sum that is not on the list above. It was <di + nn + er>.
When we began the conversation about these four possibilities, we noticed that three of them had an <er> suffix. We brainstormed a few words with a clear suffix and decided that an <er> suffix was plausible. then we looked at the other identified elements. Looking at the first hypothesis, I asked if anyone knew the word <din>. They did not. I explained that a din is an ongoing noise. I could say that there was quite a din coming from the indoor recess area. So then I wondered aloud if at dinner the participants were creating a din. Hmmm. The students thought that perhaps sometimes that is the case, but not always. We thought that if the base was <din>, then we could imagine the <n> doubling when the <er> suffix was added.
The second hypothesis (<dinn + er>) was similar to the first. The base is still listed as <dinn>, although unless this is an alternant spelling to <din>, this might be a different base or it might not be a base at all.
The third hypothesis (<dine/ + n + er>) was interesting too. It put the related word <dine> in our minds. It makes sense to think of dinner as being that time when we dine. But it didn’t take long for someone to point out that we wouldn’t replace the single final non-syllabic <e> with a consonant. Good point. If the second <n> wasn’t part of this, it would be a solid hypothesis for <diner>!
When we got to the fourth hypothesis (<di + nn + er>), I modeled giving it every consideration even though in my own head I had doubts. The students did not recognize <di> as a prefix, nor <nn> as a base. So offhand, we could not think of much evidence to support this one.
We were now at that point where we needed a reliable etymological resource. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard.
There were a lot of interesting things in this entry. First off we talked about how old this word was and that in the 1300’s it was used to mean “the first big meal of the day.” Right away the students blurted that it is no longer the first big meal of the day. As we read through the entry, we noticed that earlier than the 1300’s, this word was from the Old French disner “breakfast.” When we go to the recontructed stem of Gallo-Roman (*desjunare) with a meaning of “to break one’s fast,” we paused to think about what that meant. There were a few students aware that the word breakfast meant to break one’s fast. There were also a few who did not know what a fast was. I explained that if their last meal was the night before, they fasted while they were asleep which means they did not eat while they were asleep. Once they started eating their next meal (breakfast) they were breaking the fasting they were doing while sleeping!
The very next thing in the entry indicated that the reconstructed *desjunare was from the reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare. Here’s where it gets especially interesting. The reconstructed Vulgar Latin *disjejunare is from <dis> “do the opposite of” and Late Latin jejunare “to fast. Wow. So the word <dinner> is from a Vulgar Latin word that means “the opposite of fasting.” We had to say this a few times out loud. “To fast is not to eat. And the word dinner derives from a word that means the opposite of not eating which means, of course, eating!
Since both *desjunare and *disjejunare are reconstructed, I didn’t feel as if we had evidence to say that in Modern English we could support a word sum like <di + nn + er>, but we could sure see the story of this word’s spelling in the history! The prefix in <di> could definitely be an assimilated form of <dis>, and the <nn> could be representing <jejune> although I need to know more before I say that with any authority. I left it like this with the students. We are calling <dinner> a free base with the understanding that its literal meaning is to do the opposite of fasting. We feel that it is strongly related to <diner>, but the two would not be on the same matrix.
We also talked about how dinner used to name the noonday meal and that it gradually shifted to later and later in the day. I told them that when I was a little girl, my lunch time meal was called dinner and the evening meal was known as supper. These days we think of dinner as our evening meal and lunch as, well, lunch! As for supper, Etymonline says it is from Old French soper “evening meal.” We may use dinner and supper interchangeably these days to refer to the last meal before bedtime, but as we have shown, they are not synonyms! They have different meanings and stories!
Further down in the entry was this information:
Dinner-time is attested from late 14c.; dinner-hour is from 1750. Dinner-table is from 1784; dinner-jacket from 1852; dinner-party by 1780. Childish reduplication din-din is attested from 1905.
It was interesting to follow this list of extended uses for dinner and the years in which those uses were recorded. What’s funny to me is that when I think of a dinner-jacket, I think of James Bond. What was funny to the children was the use of “din-din.”
At the end of the day after the students were gone, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the word sum hypothesis with the <di> prefix. Was there evidence at the Oxford English Dictionary that would help me further? Interestingly enough, the etymology information for <dinner> linked me to the etymology information for <diner>!
We see some of the same information here that we saw at Etymonline in the entry for <dinner>. The smaller print says that disner contains the same elements ultimately as French déjeuner, Old French desjuner and owes its greater phonetic reduction to its belonging to an earlier period. So the spelling reflects a phonetic reduction from one of the French spellings or perhaps from one of the late Latin reconstructed spellings. My uncertainty about the direct path the spelling took is what I have based my decision on when I leave <dinner> as a free base. Perhaps someone reading this will be able to direct me to another resource or have a deeper understanding of what I can learn from the OED entry. Until then, I will only go as far in my analysis as I have evidence for.
This is the kind of teaching and learning I love. The students find it interesting and are drawn in as participants in the critical thinking that is going on. They are thinking carefully and learning what it means to “provide evidence in support of a hypothesis.” Every time we read an etymological resource together, they understand how to better use the information offered there. When I can, I point out a connection to some aspect of grammar that we are learning. At the end of the day I was able to send them home and tell them to have a good din-din … especially if they were lucky enough to be having their dinner in a diner!
When you begin to learn what is real about English spelling, you also begin to swim against the current in an educational world that has been led to believe that reading is simply the act of unlocking a code – that code being the letters of our alphabet. In many such programs, teaching reading means beginning with isolated spoken sounds and matching them to written letters. That is followed by practice at “sounding it out.” The newest buzz word for this is “orthographic mapping.” The student is taught to attach a pronunciation to groups of 1-4 letters. These letter groupings are somewhat consistent, but there are a lot of them to know to automaticity in order for a child to read fluently. If “sounding out” a word can’t make it recognizable, it is deemed “irregular.”
Those in the front lines (tutors, interventionists, and teachers of pre-k, kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade) who have received intense training in these phonics-first models or have grown up in a system using these models, seem to struggle the most in imagining a world that begins with meaning and then considers morphology, etymology, and phonology as interrelated in explaining a word’s spelling. Interrelated. Not one first in isolation, but the three facets of a word coming together to explain its meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. In this way the student is presented with a system right from the start. They are not taught specific strategies for reading that are then misapplied to writing. They are not taught that English spelling is crazy or that it cannot be understood. Instead the students learn from the start how speaking, reading, and writing can be used to represent our thinking. Much of the system we have is logical and predictable. (Many of the suffixing and other conventions are predictable. Learning that words are built from bases and that the spelling of bases within a morphological family is consistent is logical.) Students learn how to question what they do not understand. In fact their questions are encouraged and even celebrated, sending the underlying message that asking questions is key to learning. They are taught to see meaning relationships between words that share a base element, and that even when the pronunciation within that word family shifts, the spelling doesn’t. They are taught that all words have a structure, a spelling, and a pronunciation that can be explained and understood.
When first hearing about Structured Word Inquiry, many trained educators who have experienced the gamut of “spelling programs extraordinaire” figure this too is full of promises it can’t fulfill. And when they hear there is no scope and sequence, they get downright jittery. How in the world will they know what to say and what to teach without a teacher guide to tell them? But that’s just it. Structured Word Inquiry is NOT A PROGRAM. It is a course of investigation driven by curiosity. Rather than a list of words to learn each week, there are principles to visit and revisit via words chosen that enhance curricular content, are someone’s personal favorites, or are suggested for any of a number of reasons. There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
Ponder that for a moment.
There is no teacher manual full of answers because an answer to every question is not what I want my students to expect.
In the education world, when a question is posed, everyone searches for an answer. They stop when they get one they are satisfied with, and the conversation moves on. But, especially in the sciences, don’t we accept that answers are temporary? That at some future time, some scientist may discover a different answer to the same question? A deeper understanding? THAT is the same mindset I use when teaching Structured Word Inquiry. Sometimes I refer to it as Scientific Word Investigation, which more appropriately represents the scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking that is integral to this.
Unfortunately, we live in an educational world in which most people have stopped wondering about a word’s spelling and have just fully accepted that our language has no rhyme or reason to it. The teachers think they are teaching how our spelling system works, but if they are really really honest with themselves, they will admit that they wish they could explain the spelling of words like of, come, have, does, they, laugh, give, the, and countless others that end up on Word Walls in far too many classrooms. Every year a child is in school, they encounter more and more of these words that the adults only know to shrug their shoulders at, reinforcing the idea that English spelling is crazy. It is amazing to me that we all accept (and yes, I accepted it too for many years) the idea that there is no explanation to be had for words that can’t be sounded out.
But why is it like this? Why aren’t the explanations accessible to teachers? Why have teachers been told instead to use “rules” that don’t statistically work? Not only am I referring to the old “I before E” rule, but also to the “Two Vowels Go Walking” rule. Did you know that the “i before e” part of that rule is only accurate 75% of the time? Or that the “except after c” part of that rule is only accurate 25% of the time? Or that when looking at the top (meaning most common) 2,000 words, the “when two vowels go walking” rule was found to be accurate only 36% of the time?
Here are two more “rules” that deserve to be banned. The first says, “When a stressed syllable ends in e, the long sound of the vowel is used, and the final e is silent.” It works for words like bike, pope, and rake, and doesn’t work for give, love, and move. Teachers will find it surprising that it is accurate only 68% of the time. (Those teaching with SWI will recognize a different way to explain what is happening there – it has to do with the function of the single final non-syllabic <e>.) The second rule says, “When there is only one vowel in a stressed syllable and the vowel is followed by a consonant, the short vowel sound is used.” This works for fix, hop, and cat, but not for mind, wild, and fold. This one too works only 68% of the time.
I find it astounding that creative people have used their talents to come up with these “rules” instead of demanding to understand why words are spelled the way they are! Is it really that there is no explanation? Hardly. Are the explanations really so complicated that teachers and children alike can’t learn or understand them? Again, hardly.
In my opinion, the three biggest problems are these:
The inaccuracies have been embedded in the teaching for so long that as a society we have become complacent. There is a general acceptance of the notion that English spelling is crazy and can’t be understood. We see this all over the internet. People print what they perceive to be the ridiculousness of English spelling on coffee cups and T-shirts, and everybody laughs. People offer proof of the craziness of English spelling by asking why ‘bomb’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘tomb’ or ‘comb’. But who said they had to? You can blame that expectation on teachers who first taught those people to read. They may not have said it specifically, but after having students complete worksheet after worksheet with cat, rat, sat, pat, tip, sip, rip, lip, and cup, sup, pup, children get the message. Words that have the same letter string will always rhyme. And no one ever tells them differently. Children learn what you tell them, but also what you imply.
Teachers cannot teach what it is that they themselves do not understand. This lack of understanding is so pervasive because there are very few colleges that equip teachers with orthographic understanding. The textbooks offered to future teachers of reading are smattered with the inaccurate rules listed above. It would be difficult indeed to sort out what is worth using with children and what is not. And the curricular materials school districts spend millions on every year are no different. Many teachers can sense that the materials are not helping their students, but don’t know enough on their own to understand specifically what parts are utter nonsense. All the company has to do is slap the words “evidence based” or “research based” on the cover, and the school districts are all in. No one in any of those districts is reading any of that “evidence” or “research” and the company counts on that. The companies simply put a new spin on the old content and market it. School districts see where there are weaknesses in their ELA scores, and want to find something that will help their teachers improve scores and ultimately assist their students in becoming better at reading and writing. They believe the companies know what they are doing. But those administrators, like the teachers, like the teacher-prep colleges, and like the curricular material companies don’t understand English spelling themselves. The curriculum companies get as creative as they can in presenting spelling as a fun activity, but the bottom line is that one cannot teach what one doesn’t understand.
Many children will learn to read even without understanding how our spelling system works. This is what keeps so many spelling programs and curricular materials in business. It is also what keeps so many well meaning teachers and their students in the dark. If a child can read, then what does it matter whether or not they understand a word’s spelling? There will always be spellcheck, right? This idea that reading is primarily about sounds represented as letters may seem to be so obvious when a child is learning to read. But as they advance through the grades and encounter longer and more interesting words, their missing understanding about the morphology and the etymology that affects the phonology is the thing that becomes obvious. Why don’t they know that some letters are etymological or orthographic markers, or that a word’s etymology has much to do with the graphemes that spell it? Why weren’t they taught that English spelling is a system and that each year their understanding of that system could grow to accommodate any newly acquired words? Instead it is assumed that if they learn to read in kindergarten and 1st grade, they will naturally maintain that reading proficiency and spelling proficiency automatically as they move through grades, even when the materials used include inaccurate information such as I’ve mentioned above.
An example of such nonsense was recently brought to my attention by a teacher using Words Their Way. Her students were asked to spot the <un> in unplanned, unprepared, unlock and uncle. Really? The <un> in three of those words is obviously a prefix. Why would ‘uncle’ be included here? Are the students supposed to think it also has an <un> prefix, or is this just an indicator that children are not being taught that a word has structure (is comprised of morphemes)? Then, within that same week, the same teacher told me about the task in which her students were supposed to spot the <re> in rethink, replay, reheat and reptile. She wondered what she was missing. Was there an <re> prefix in ‘reptile’? Of course not. This teacher was not missing anything, but her students sure were. They were missing the framework by which to understand the words they were being asked to read and write. They were missing being taught the structure (morphology), history (etymology), and using both of those to understand the pronunciation (phonology) of words. They were missing feeling comfortable to ask questions about things that don’t make sense (whether or not the teacher has a ready answer). The fact that students no longer ask questions about spelling by grade 4 should be a big red flag to teachers everywhere. Sadly it isn’t. The students have learned that the teacher won’t be able to answer or guide them to resources that would help anyway. They have no expectation that English spelling will make sense. That is sad. It doesn’t need to be that way.
My students don’t deserve to be limited by the boundaries of my own understanding.
As teachers, we often feel more effective if we can anticipate the questions our students might ask and be ready with an answer. When we can successfully do that, we feel knowledgeable and think we are presenting ourselves as knowledgeable to our students. But there’s a catch to all that. In many instances teachers create a façade of having background in content knowledge. They have learned to rely on a teacher manual more than they rely on their own professional expertise. I don’t really want my students believing that I know everything or that I have all the answers. There are only a few students who would be brave enough to ask a question in that situation. Most fear looking “stupid” by asking a “stupid” question in the presence of someone who appears to be an expert, whether or not that is actually the case. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your students don’t ask more questions, perhaps you have set up this atmosphere without realizing it.
Here’s an example of a well meaning teacher who tried to limit her students to her own level of understanding. Each year I coordinate a Science Fair at our school. I’ve been doing it for years. (The simple reply to why I do it is that there are always those students who shine at the Science Fair in a way that is unexpected by adults/peers in their lives. Those adults could be adults at school who only see certain aspects of the student (math, reading, behavior issues, etc.), or they could be extended family or neighbors.) Anyway, one year there was a colleague who was guiding her own students through the process of getting ready for the Science Fair. She approached me and asked if we might change the scope of the Fair just a bit. Because she didn’t feel particularly knowledgeable about many areas in science, she was suggesting that we choose ten topics. The students could then pick one of those topics for their Science Fair project. In this way, she could anticipate questions and most likely be able to answer them as the students progressed through the weeks of experimenting. It would make participating in the Science Fair more comfortable for her.
As much as I understood why she was asking this, I couldn’t agree to it. It might eliminate the possibility of a student following a passion or interest. We all know what happens when a student is forced to pick a topic they are not interested in. That is not a way to encourage curiosity and creativity. When one of my students picks a topic I have no background in, I tell them how excited I am that we will both be learning about the topic. In fact, I find myself asking lots of questions when the student and I journal. (Since I am now the lone science teacher at our grade level, journaling is how I communicate individually with the 75 students I currently prepare for the Science Fair.) My own curiosity is aroused when a student picks a project or wonders about something no one else has picked or wondered about in the last 25 years of Science Fairs! Instead of limiting the students to my own background knowledge, I embrace stretching my background knowledge to include something new, and I model the enthusiasm that goes along with learning! It is very similar to how my students and I study the English spelling system.
My students and I find a sense of relief in the freedom that comes with not having to have the one right answer to every question. And yes, I included myself there. I never realized the “must know the right answer” burden I was carrying until I began investigating words. Since that day, I have moved forward as wide-eyed and curious as my students. I have experienced the joy of scholarship, and that has fueled a passion for desiring to know more. My students see me as someone who has a deeper understanding than they do, but also as someone who is eager to learn more. I make a big deal when a student asks a question I never thought to ask about a word or about a spelling. I make an even bigger deal when it is a great question that I don’t know the answer to. Just as in my Science Fair example, I am excited to know that the student and I will both learn something useful! My students are fully aware that I don’t know everything about English spelling. I am not setting up any false illusions about that. Yet we all understand that I am in the best position to guide the inquiries until they learn the process for themselves. And that is my goal – to teach my students how to use SWI on their own to deepen their understanding of the words they wonder about.
Here’s another example of a teacher whose students are limited in their learning by the teacher’s background knowledge. This is something I read on a blog the other day. The teacher is a kindergarten teacher who is teaching her students to read. She is enthusiastic and sincere in wanting her students to succeed. The task she describes is that of teaching sight words. First she says the word in question. Then she has them isolate the sounds they hear. Then she shows them the letters that represent those sounds by writing them on the board (orthographic mapping). She begins with the letters that represent a pronunciation that is predictable. Then she unveils the letters that represent a pronunciation in a way that isn’t expected.
“Sometimes I like to get a little dramatic as I unveil the word. -Especially for really irregular ones…my students died laughing when I revealed the spelling for “of” and showed the shock and craziness of the word with my expressions.”
If she herself had an explanation for the spelling of <of>, surely she would offer it. Since she doesn’t, she teaches her students that English spelling is often worthy of shocked looks and crazy expressions. When I asked why she embeds this rather unhelpful implication in her teaching of reading and writing, she defended it by saying that it made the sight words memorable and that the learning was fun this way.
Now I completely understand the idea of making learning fun and memorable. That is something I reflect on often in my own teaching. But I have learned to draw the line when what becomes memorable is a false premise for future learning. I understand that her goal for the school year is to have her students read and write. What she is doing will probably help her succeed in that. The method she is using is called Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI). I have no doubt that students being taught by this method leave kindergarten being able to do some reading and writing.
So if a goal as important as reading and writing is met, what’s the harm in her method? Well, let’s think about this. If she is teaching all “irregular” words in this way, she is sending the specific message to her students that many spellings are crazy and cannot be understood. And she is implying this over and over and over. By the end of the year, their overall impression of our spelling system is set. If the first grade teacher is also unequipped to explain words deemed “irregular”, then the students will receive a second year of subliminal messaging that “English spelling is unreliable and can’t be counted on to make sense.” What happens in second grade? More of the same? At what point are the students given the “straight skinny” about their spelling system? At what point do they meet a teacher who is willing to encourage their questions about why words are spelled the way they are and show them how to seek a deep understanding, knowing that what we understand is easier to remember? And if those students are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who can actually explain “irregular” spellings, along with supplying logical and predictable features of our spelling system, how on earth does that teacher have the time in one year to reset the attitude their previous teachers have nurtured? This is not a hypothetical situation. It is what I face every fall with each new fifth grade group.
Like I said before, I believe this kindergarten teacher’s desire to nurture successful readers is sincere. But in a really huge way, isn’t she limiting their understanding to her own? It is obvious that EBLI doesn’t offer any explanations for the spellings of sight words. If it did, this teacher would use them. Her heart is in the right place when it comes to doing right by her students. But how possible is it to be truthful right from the start with beginning readers when the teacher is missing so much herself? I often ponder this very idea because for years I didn’t question the idea of irregular words either. I just accepted that irregular words are words that can’t be explained and need to be memorized. This teacher is making that memorization fun, but in the end it is still just memorization. There is no understanding being offered. And I see a huge difference between “memorize this” and “understand this.”
Now let’s think for a moment about how a word ends up in the disgraceful “irregular” pile. It has to do with the alphabetic principle. We teach students that certain pronunciations will be spelled in certain ways using certain letters. When a word’s spelling deviates from that, it is labeled “irregular.” Some teachers (trying to make learning memorable) even shame the word by calling it “misbehaving.” There are even those who go so far as to put the word in “jail”. I love the fact that teachers are some of the most creative people I have ever met, but I also cringe when they use that creativity to disguise what it is that they themselves do not understand.
Unfortunately, too many teachers do not think young children are capable of understanding much about spelling. Their excuse is that we need to limit their cognitive load. Giving them a reason for a spelling, or planting any seeds about how fascinating and logical our spelling system actually is is out of the question in their minds. In my opinion, when adults decide what a child’s capacity for learning is (without having met the child), that child is instantly disadvantaged. If the only way to teach a child to read and write is to also teach the child that our spelling system is absurd and/or crazy, then I say find another way to teach reading and writing.
The number of classrooms in which children are being taught to read using SWI principles is growing every week. Age appropriate explanations are provided to children in regards to any word’s spelling. Right from the beginning, the children are taught to look for consistent spelling patterns, morphemes, and to recognize word families. They get lots of practice at recognizing grapheme/phoneme correspondences. They are encouraged to notice things and to ask questions. They enjoy making “word family” games for their classmates. And at the end of the school year, they are reading and they are writing. But most importantly, they are moving on to 1st grade expecting to read more, write more, and understand more about our language. No one has to back up the bus and convince them that spelling is in fact logical and fascinating. There is only a moving forward motion in their understanding! Each year they revisit important principles and ask the questions that deepen everyone’s understanding. They pull words out of context, investigate them at whatever level is appropriate, and notice other words that are related morphologically before putting the words back into context and discussing how understanding the word deepens its meaning within that context. Some of the very same things taught or practiced in an SWI classroom are also what is being taught with a method like EBLI. The major difference is the underlying belief that connects each year’s learning.
Imagine I had the choice of sending my young child to one of two classrooms. In both classrooms, there is a strong chance that my child would learn to read and write. The difference in the classrooms is this: In classroom #1, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is illogical and a lot of the times so crazy you’ll want to roll your eyes at it. They will memorize spellings without much understanding of why the word is spelled that way. They will be taught that some words have explainable spelling patterns and that many do not. They will practice sounding out words, and when a word can’t be sounded out, everyone will laugh at the word. In classroom #2, the students will learn that spelling, the system they will use the rest of their lives, is reliable and logical. They will immediately begin learning that words have structure and how understanding that fact will help them with building related words and spelling those related words. They will learn a “spell it out” strategy in which they identify bases and graphemes within those bases at the same time they are learning the word’s pronunciation and its spelling. They will learn that words have histories and that some words are very old. They will be encouraged to ask questions about what they notice about a word’s spelling. The teacher will help the students think through those questions.
I find it hard to believe people when they imply that it’s not possible to have the students leave kindergarten with the impression that there’s a reason for every spelling.
More and more teachers are proving the opposite of that every day. If you are interested in finding out more about what happens in those SWI kindergarten classrooms, I encourage you to participate in study groups with Rebecca Loveless and Pete Bowers. They have specifically worked with kindergarten teachers and their students.
It would be unrealistic to think we can teach without imposing (to some extent) the knowledge limits we each have. But isn’t it our responsibility to constantly reflect on how our own limits affect our students? I don’t like to think that I’ve invited my students into my yard (if we can think of my background knowledge as a yard with fences) and that they become prisoners there. Or that if they ask questions about what is beyond that fence, I would need to make up cutesy explanations to keep them from exploring what I myself am not comfortable exploring. I would rather think of this as me inviting them into my yard, and then when they ask questions about what’s on the other side of the fence, me going with them and modeling how to search for understanding. In the process I would be showing them how to keep expanding their own yard by continually moving those fences. When I am willing to either step outside my “fence” or to keep extending it, we all benefit as learners.
And here’s another thing that doesn’t often get considered. Never forget that students are as deep-down satisfied to prove truths about our English language to themselves as we are! When you spend year after year in classrooms in which the teacher is the expert, and you and your classmates are the buckets to be filled, this kind of investigating can be exhilarating! Students find it refreshing, really, to be given the tools and the opportunity to raise a question and then to prove or disprove it to themselves. My role becomes that of a guide, steering the questions the students have during an investigation back on them as often as possible, but also realizing when they have reached a point where they are truly stuck.
I might also add that I know of several adults with dyslexia who have shared with me their experiences of learning to read in school. They were frustrated much of the time because they were asked to remember bits and pieces without a context. Being told that our language was absurd or crazy made learning to read and write even harder because in effect they were being told it didn’t make sense. Being given a solid understanding of the interrelationship of morphology, etymology, and phonology, however, has turned a truly laborious task into a fascinating one. I’m not saying that their dyslexia has disappeared, but I am saying that they no longer feel as if they are staggering in the dark. Those adults ask lots of questions and think through lots of their own hypotheses thanks to finding Structured Word Inquiry. And every one of them is sharing their understanding with children. They, more than almost anyone else, really get what a difference understanding the spelling system can make.
Doing what is right for children isn’t easy when you are swimming against the educational current. When you have the guidelines of Structured Word Inquiry, when you can see for yourself what is true, and when you can provide evidence to any doubtful package-loving administrators, you do so, and then you just keep swimming. It’s what you do.
When we decide to explore any of the sciences, we expect to dive deep. We expect to examine what others have already discovered, we expect to find out things we didn’t know before, and we expect to be enlightened by those findings. If we are testing some established scientific principle or a student hypothesis about the way things work, we think like scientists. We follow some form of the Scientific Method. We do this so that some one else might repeat our experiment if they wanted and get the result we got. In other words, our results would be verifiable because our methods were consistent.
This same idea is at the very core of Structured Word Inquiry. It is inherent in its three basic principles.
Many people think they are “doing SWI” because they teach prefixes and suffixes, because they teach Greek and Latin roots, or because they have some information on a word’s etymology ready for their older students. If you are not treating word study as a science, you are not “doing SWI.” If you are using a boxed program, you are no doubt following someone else’s idea of what is appropriate for your students based merely on their age. How can that possibly reflect a student’s natural curiosity and support that student’s flow in thinking, questioning, proving/falsifying, and understanding? It can’t. It can’t because it cannot possibly follow all three principles of Structured Word Inquiry.
So what does it mean to treat spelling/word study as a science? How is that different from what is being done in other practices? What are those three principles and why are they so important?
Here they are. These are the three guiding principles of Structured Word Inquiry. They are something I keep in mind as I plan the starting point of each inquiry with my students. Just to be clear, these are not principles I thought of. These are the principles Dr. Peter Bowers developed as he was seeking to further define Structured Word Inquiry and what its implementation with students means exactly. I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘inquiry’ and even ‘structured’ is becoming part of more and more literacy programs. But what exactly do those words mean in those contexts? What do those words mean in the context of SWI? That is what Dr. Bowers set out to clarify with these principles.
The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
If you are not familiar with Structured Word Inquiry or where it started, I encourage you to visit Dr. Pete Bowers’ website. A much more thorough accounting, including links to research that supports SWI can be found here at WordWorksKingston. Structured Word Inquiry describes the instruction Dr. Bowers used when he ran a grade 4-5 morphological intervention with John Kirby in 2010. It is important to note that he was “using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction.” After running the intervention and writing about their findings, Dr. Bowers knew how important it would be to carefully describe the underlying and crucial supports of Structured Word Inquiry.
The three guiding principles are different than the four questions that guide an actual structured word inquiry. They are foundational. They must be adhered to in order to conduct a structured word inquiry. Without the principles, as I’ve said earlier, this is just another program that becomes automatic and routine over time when compared to the unpredictable discovery and inquisitive nature of true structured word inquiry.
This idea of treating spelling as a science probably sounds weird because we have been taught that there is nothing more to know about a word except how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means. You may be wondering what there is to investigate. What would we even be looking for? But here is where structured word inquiry differs from other programs or boxed kits. The point of structured word inquiry is to show the child how to use scientific rigor and resources to prove to themselves why words are spelled the way they are. You won’t find other approaches explaining the why. They may explain what is, but not WHY what is, is. That takes orthographic science!
Let’s take a closer look at each of these important principles.
1) The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
I remember reading this principle for the first time and thinking, “Whatever. How can that be?” I listened to and read everything else being presented to me and kind of ignored this principle. I ignored it because of the dissonance it created in my head. Thinking back on my own schooling, I recall all the time I spent memorizing a word’s spelling, all the time I spent looking up definitions of words, and finally, all the time I spent figuring out how to remember which word went with which definition. Now I was supposed to believe that the spelling of a word represents its meaning? “Whatever. How can that be?”
Fully believing in this principle has happened slowly for me because, well, old beliefs are sometimes embedded deeper than we think. Over and over I saw the proof, but still looked askance at this principle. How could it be true? Because I was wrangling with this principle, it was always on my mind. Without intentionally doing so, I began to collect my own bank of evidence.
What I thought I knew was that spelling was about pronunciation. I grew up being told to sound out words if I asked how they were spelled. As a teacher I’ve told hundreds of students to do the same. Sitting back and reflecting on all of the times a word couldn’t be successfully spelled in that manner – by sounding it out, was Exhibit A. If spelling was there to represent pronunciation, why were there so many exceptions – so many words that couldn’t be spelled correctly by being sounded out?
Exhibit B was the nagging sense of failure I felt in 18 years of teaching for not being able to provide my students with any real understanding about spelling. Every book I used, every piece of curricular material I was handed focused on spelling and its correlation to prominent vowel sounds in words. I always ended up saying, “No one knows why words are spelled the way they are. You’ll just have to memorize them.” Dictionaries were dreaded resources in my classroom. No one wanted to tackle one of those. Students begged me, “Just tell me how to spell it. Please?” When I asked colleagues for help, I was made to feel as if I was the problem – I wasn’t teaching the spelling curriculum as presented – with fidelity. But I read through the teaching guide many times. The understanding I longed for wasn’t there.
The third piece of evidence (Exhibit C) was something pointed out to me. (And ever since, I can’t un-see it). It was the fact that pronunciation in word families shifts all the time. Just think of how we pronounce courage and courageous; demonstrate and demonstrative; real and reality; heal and health; please and pleasure. If spelling was primarily supposed to help with pronunciation, why wasn’t each pair of these words spelled differently? A suffix was added and the pronunciation changed! Take note that the basic part of each word in these pairs is spelled the same regardless of that change in pronunciation. This particular exhibit of evidence is compelling to me. It reminds me of the genus and species names that scientists use. There are common names for most organisms on this earth, but those vary from location to location (kind of like accents and dialects with language). By using the genus and species name for an organism, scientists have a common language. They know which organism is being referred to with certainty. The fact that we don’t shift the spelling of a word every time we shift its pronunciation is heavy duty proof that the spelling represents something other than pronunciation. It represents the meaning that we (no matter where we live, no matter what our dialect or regional peculiarities) seek in order to communicate with one another.
Of course, there is more evidence out there. Exhibit D might be the Homophone Principle which states that when two words are pronounced the same but mean different things, wherever possible they will have different spellings to represent those different meanings. Think of the homophones blue and blew; right and write; flower and flour; see and sea; poor and pour. We recognize that although each set of words has the same pronunciation, the two words are not spelled alike to mark their different meanings! I’ll say that again. Their spelling indicates to the reader that they do not share meaning.
These days when I am explaining this principle to others, and they give me that look that I recognize as hesitance, I present the above evidence. Because it is the most compelling to me, I make sure to present what I have explained as Exhibit C. I use examples such as the word family for <sign>. There is the obvious lack of pronunciation of the <g> in family members <sign>, <assignment>, and <signer>, but then the <g> IS pronounced in <signature>, <designate>, and <signal>. Beyond that, the <s> has an unexpected pronunciation as /z/ in <design> and <designate>. Once more, the spelling is the consistent piece because it is representing the sense and meaning of the base! All of the words in this family have a sense and meaning of “a mark with some special importance.”
2) The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
The first time I read this principle I was ready to accept it. I was almost relieved. For years I had been hoping that English wasn’t as illogical and unpredictable as people kept saying (continue to say). You see, I love words. I always have. I just haven’t understood them in the way I do now. Now I have images and stories and depth and connections that I never had before. In the same way that I delight in turning that first page of a new book, I now delight in looking at a new word or finding out something new about an old word.
Knowing that English spelling is well-ordered and reliable enough to face the rigors of scientific investigation brings an amazing sense of calm and eagerness to my classroom. There is no dread in knowing we are studying words on a certain day. There is only joy and anticipation. The frustration and distress disappeared because the judgement regarding being right or wrong about a spelling disappeared. It may sound weird to hear me say this, but the focus with structured word inquiry isn’t completely on the spelling. As we are understanding the spelling, as we are seeing these reliable and well-ordered conventions of English spelling over and over, it feels to the student as if their spelling has significantly improved without them having to focus on it specifically. They are never asked to memorize the spelling of a word, yet they are able to spell words that they haven’t been able to spell before. For some it has felt effortless. That ability comes from the fact that they now understand the word’s spelling. In the past, when they have been asked to memorize spellings, there was no rhyme or reason for them. It was a string of letters. Words with several vowels were particularly hard because no one could satisfactorily explain their order.
An especially liberating truth inherent in this principle is that calling words irregular, oddball, tricky, devil or the like doesn’t make them so. Every time I hear someone call a word tricky or say something as ridiculous as “This word is misbehaving and needs to be put in jail,” I shake my head. Here we have adults who don’t understand the spelling of a certain word, making fun of the word for that. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t understand your spelling. It doesn’t fit what I’ve been taught about words.” So instead of questioning what they’ve been taught, they single out the word and call it names. I’ve been in the classroom a long time. Think about what some children do to other children who are in some way different than themselves. Instead of trying to understand the difference, one child makes fun of the other. Isn’t that just what is happening here?
3) Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
The idea of investigating words as a scientist might is so appealing to me! After all, I have organized our school’s fifth grade science fair for 25 years now. I know a thing or two about using a consistent framework for a scientific investigation. A scientist wouldn’t dream of drawing conclusions based on someone else’s say so. A scientist conducts their own research, and keeps careful notes to track their investigation. A scientist is thorough and looks at a problem from many angles, seeking to have a broad understanding before zeroing in on a specific aspect. By using the four questions of structured word inquiry, spelling scientists follow a similar deep dive to understand English spelling.
The importance of this principle must not be underestimated. If it is true that scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works, then I want my students to be able to use scientific inquiry to see it for themselves. I need to teach my students which tools to use and which questions to ask. They need to know how to use the relevant information in the resources to provide evidence to either support or falsify their hypotheses about English spelling. This is where boxed programs or scripted curriculums fall short. Completely and unfortunately short. The questions are already posed … by the creators of the program. The students are walked through the lessons and asked to answer questions they didn’t ask. Such programs are not designed to accommodate the unpredictability of a child’s path of thinking. Structured Word Inquiry on the other hand embraces and celebrates that unpredictability. Teachable moments present themselves every day and in meaningful ways. The students are engaged and fascinated because they are part of what drives the learning. They are not passive receivers of lessons who are told what to think and then given time to memorize things that don’t make sense to them.
A huge part of my learning community is my classroom. In this room I am a passionate learner. I think out loud at times to model the types of questions that might help my students during an inquiry. I guide the students in the right direction when I can see they are stuck. And as often as possible, I turn the “figuring-out part”, the “decision-making-based-on-the-evidence-collected part” of the investigation back on the students. The inquiries carried out by the students yield learning for all of us. When that happens, we all feel exhilarated.
Students find it refreshing that I don’t have a teacher manual and as a result, don’t always know the answers. I often tell them that my very favorite questions are the ones I can’t answer. In a very big way, it lifts the burden that most children feel about guessing what the teacher wants you to say in a given discussion. It lifts the burden of having to have a right answer when joining a discussion. Students no longer worry about being embarrassed for giving a wrong answer because if we use scientific inquiry, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no judgement attached to a thought shared. Instead, students propose hypotheses about word structure or other aspects of English spelling. There is only what we can prove, what we cannot prove, and what we can falsify. This is an amazing difference from what is experienced in other classrooms (from what was experienced in my own spelling classroom prior to 2012). It provides an atmosphere in which there is a willingness to participate and ask questions. You see, so much of the learning takes place during those classroom discussions and during presentations of a particular investigation. THAT is when information is settling and synthesizing with other information, forming or strengthening an existing understanding. For the last two years, this has been our classroom mantra:
When you are looking for answers, you are looking to settle your question. Once you find that answer, you are done with the question. You don’t go back and ask it again. You move on. This principle of using scientific inquiry demands that we not seek answers. We seek to understand something. The question remains open. Even when we are satisfied with our understanding, we are open to noticing something that will bring that question back to the foreground. We will reconsider what it is we understand and how the new information affects it. With other programs, children are filled with facts as if they are buckets. There is so much the student is asked to memorize whether it makes sense to them or not.
Structured Word Inquiry gives the student the consistent procedure, the framework of these principles, and the opportunity to see for themselves – to prove to themselves – to build that understanding for themselves. There is no program or approach or preset curriculum that can do that. This principle of using scientific inquiry is what sets Structured Word Inquiry apart. It is what disqualifies it from being called a program or an approach. It is simply scientific inquiry. It is the same scientific inquiry that led to us finding out the world is round. It is how we found out about gravity, germs, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, the mating dance of Sandhill cranes, the phases of the moon, the layers of the atmosphere, and the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle. Each discovery or understanding began with a question and a scientist who pursued it. And the pursuit was teeming with scientific thinking.
It is the way we can learn about English spelling too. Just make sure your toes are soundly buried in the sands of these three Structured Word Inquiry Principles before investigating anything.
Something quite amazing and wonderful happened the other day. But before I tell you about it, I need to tell you what led up to it.
In the past few weeks, students have been working on several orthography projects. Prior to that, they had been working in groups to create podcasts. As each group finished their podcast (based on a word investigation), they needed something new to investigate while the rest of the groups were still working. Instead of assigning the same activity to all who were ready for something, I mixed things up. In that way, when the students are ready to present, we will have a variety of orthographic concepts to be talking about. Here are the projects I assigned:
1) I let some students choose a word and independently investigate it. This has become a favorite activity among my students. They enjoy the freedom of choosing their own word and then seeing what they can discover. I like this activity because they get practice using etymological resources (reading and pulling information pertinent to their investigation). They are able to choose whether to use Mini Matrix Maker or create their own matrix. Each finished poster has the same types of information as all the others, yet has been touched by the individual student’s creativity. Here are some examples of finished work:
2) Some students were asked to think about an individual grapheme and the phonemes that can be represented by it. They collected words to illustrate that one grapheme can represent several different phonemes. Here are some examples of finished work:
3) Other students were paired up and asked to investigate assimilated prefixes.
I assign a particular prefix to a group. I tell them the assimilated forms I want them to look at. For example, in the picture below, this group looked at <ob->. In addition to words with <ob-> prefix, they collected words that had the assimilated forms <op->, <oc->, and <of->. Before I sent them on their way to find the words, I had them bring a dictionary to my desk so I could show them how to prove that the two initial letters were a prefix and not just the first two letters of a base.
My favorite dictionary for use in the classroom is the Collins Gage Paperback Dictionary. Let’s look at the entry for <occupy>, and I think you’ll see why I like it so much. First of all this dictionary gives the IPA. Not all dictionaries do. Then there are definitions with example sentences. Near the bottom of the entry are related words. And the last thing in the entry is important etymological information. So <occupy> is from Latin occupare “seize”; <ob-> “up” and capere “grasp.” I specifically show the students the prefix listed as <ob->, but that in the word, we see <oc-> because of assimilation having happened.
Once they list words they’ve found in this dictionary, I ask them to use another source as well. My point in doing that is that I don’t want them to rely on any one source as having all the answers. There are interesting things to note when looking at multiple sources, as I’m sure you know. Teaching that aspect of research is important and easy to do here. If the student goes to word searcher next, then they will have to find their evidence of the first two letters actually being a prefix in an etymological reference. We usually use Etymonline. If the student uses the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the etymological information will be there, although they may end up finding words that are no longer used (which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as they mention its last known use)
Here’s another example of a word with the assimilated prefix <of->.
What a beautiful opportunity to talk about stress in a word! The two IPA representations show this word two ways. The first is used when the word is defined as in definitions 4 and 5. (It says 5-6, but this must be a typo as there is no 6.) The second is used when the word is defined as in definitions 1, 2, and 3. Where I’ve highlighted, you see that this is from Latin offensa, past participle of offendere; <ob-> “against” and fendere “strike.” Again, we see that in the etymological information the prefix is listed as <ob->, but in the present day word, the assimilated prefix <of-> is used. When the second element in the word begins with an <f>, the <of-> prefix has been used to better match the pronunciation of the first grapheme of the next element.
Two students who had been looking at the assimilated prefix <ad> said that they were ready to present their findings to the class. They had created a poster which they hung on the board. As usual, their classmates pulled chairs close to the front and listened carefully, thinking of questions to ask and word meanings to wonder about.
As they began to share their findings it became more and more obvious that there was a problem. They collected words that began with <an>, <al>, <at>, and <as>, but in the words they collected, those letters were not necessarily prefixes. For example, they had the word <anteater> on their list. A classmate pointed out that it was a compound word, and that if we removed the <an> from <ant>, that would mean that <t> would have to be the base in that word. That didn’t seem likely.
Another word that classmates questioned was <atmosphere>. We studied that word at the beginning of the year and the students remembered that the word sum is <atm + o + sphere –> atmosphere>. Then I spotted <astrologist> and shared that the word sum would be <astr + o + log + ist –> astrologist>. We have come across other words with a structure similar to this (biologist, geologist, hydrologist, seismologist).
There were other words that obviously didn’t have the <ad-> prefix or any of its assimilated prefixes too. The two had identified the <as> in <ashore> and the <ar> in <army>.
I did not take a picture of their poster, but the next day I took a picture of the notebook they used. You can see that quite a few words on this list look questionable. There are only a few that have an assimilated form of <ad-> as a prefix. For example there is <announce> from <ad>”to” and nuntiare “report”, and <attention> from <ad> “to, toward” and tendere “stretch.” But most of the rest of these have a different story to tell.
The word <android> is from Greek andro- “man” and eides “form, shape.” The word <angel> is from Greek angelos “messenger, one that announces.” The word <anniversary> is from Latin annus “year” and versus “to turn.” Enjoy yourself as you check out some of these others on your own! So back to the presentation and what to do next.
It was obvious that the students must have copied words that began with the same letters as the assimilated forms of <ad-> without checking to make sure that those spellings were indeed a prefix. Even this far into the year, I see that a few of the students still do word work on “automatic pilot.” This activity might have seemed like the word sorts they did in years prior that matched things on the surface of the word without much thought needed. Perhaps they were confused when I explained how to find the evidence and didn’t let me know. Regardless of how it came to be, we were looking at a huge misunderstanding of what a prefix is and what it isn’t!
But my next thought was protecting the inquisitiveness of these two students. They might begin to feel embarrassed if we kept pointing out words that didn’t belong on this list. There sure were a lot. As a class, we have talked often about mistakes being the opportunity to learn something new, but this was a scenario through which I wanted to tread lightly. I wanted to turn this investigation around without my students feeling any shame for having misunderstood the task.
But here’s where the amazing and wonderful thing came in. When I suggested that these two scrap this poster and redo their look at the <ad> prefix, they matter of factly said, “Okay.” They weren’t angry. They didn’t feel defeated. Their body posture didn’t show shame or humiliation. (And believe me, I was watching those two closely.) And because the attitude we’ve spent the year nurturing is one based on proving or disproving our hypotheses based on evidence, these two didn’t feel like quitting either! It was such a deeply satisfying moment. I was pleased, obviously, but also in awe of the environment the students and I have created that allows for failure without judgement. I thought for the rest of the day about this. What contributed to their rather amenable response to being asked to repeat their investigation? When I think back to the beginning of the year, I would have expected eyeballs to roll or mumbling to occur. What was different now? Well, I believe a huge part of the change is the mindset of the entire class. The students (in the audience) who were questioning these words were speaking in a very neutral sincere tone. The presenters didn’t feel judged, and therefore were able to hear what was being questioned and why.
I said to the class, “Maybe it would be a good idea for all of us to review how we know when an initial <ad> is a prefix, versus when it is just part of the word. Can anyone think of a word that might have an <ad> prefix? Let’s walk through the process again. If these two misunderstood how to prove you were looking at a prefix, someone else might be misunderstanding as well.”
A student raised his hand and asked if we could look at<adolescent>. “That’s a great word to look at! I’m not sure what we’ll find about that initial <ad>!”
I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard so we could all see the entry.
We read through the entry and didn’t feel like the information we were looking for was here. I reminded the students that following the link (dark red) is always a good idea. So we clicked on <adolescent> (n.).
We read through the entry together, discussing the fact that they would be called adolescents because they were young people who were growing up. Then we came to the information we were looking for. This word is from Latin <ad-> “to” and alescere “be nourished” hence, “increase, grow up.”
Next I asked the class if anyone could think of another word with the base we see in <adolescent>. I wasn’t too surprised when no one raised their hand. But it would be important to find one. That would provide the final piece of evidence that in Modern English, we see this base in other words with either a different prefix or none at all. We went to Word Searcher and typed<alesc> in the search bar. We found coalesce, and convalesce. I reminded the students that we had looked at the bound base <vale> “strong” in February and that <convalesce> was one of the related words we found. When someone is convalescing, they are resting and growing stronger. Interesting. There is definitely a sense of “growing healthy” in this word, yet the <ale> spelling can’t be in both the <vale> base and the <alesce> base. I mean it could, but in that moment, I didn’t know. I would be putting that word on my “give this some further thought” list. As I said that, several heads nodded in recognition. Then we looked at <coalesce>. The word <coalesce> means to unite by growing together. It is an assimilated form of <com-> “together” and alescere “be nourished, grow.” Cool! Now we could verify that in the word <adolescent>, the <ad> is a prefix.
At this point the students were ready to have work time. It surprises and delights me that individual work time is one of their favorite things! There are even times (more often than one would guess) when students and I are together in the cafeteria or on the playground, and I am enthusiastically asked, “Do we get to work on our word projects today?”
I waited until everyone was busy at whatever task they were involved in. Then I went over to follow up with the group that was redoing their <ad-> investigation. One of the students was still a bit foggy about this investigation. “Go get one of the red dictionaries,” I told him. When he returned, I said, “Open it to the section of words that begin with <ad>.” I wanted to make sure these students were on the right track. We came across the word <adopt>. I had one of them read the entry out loud. As we discussed this word, one of the students knew that babies could be adopted, but hadn’t really thought about ideas being adopted. Then we came to the evidence we were looking for. I have it highlighted for you. I said, “Look at that! The prefix has a sense of “to” and the base has a denotation of “choose!” Does that make sense with what we understand this word to mean?” They both agreed that it did.
Now I wanted to show them what they would find with one of the assimilated forms of <ad->. I asked them to turn to the <ar> section. As we read words on the page, we were looking specifically for the last line of each entry. Then we spotted the words <Latin ad- “to” + restare “stop”>. Our eyes went back to the header word which was <arrest>. One of the students read the definition. It was surprising to the students that arrest could mean stop as in the sentence, “Filling a tooth arrests decay.” When we read the highlighted portion after having read the rest of the entry, it made sense. To stop something is to make it stay.
At this point, I asked if they understood better what to be looking for. They said they did and promised to call me over if they had any questions. It was time to let them at it!
I made my way around the room checking in on other groups/individuals. There were at least two groups that had completed a look at assimilated prefixes and were ready for another new investigation. I called them over to my desk and gave them a mini lesson on Latin verbs. We have talked about Latin verbs as a class, and now it was time for the students to investigate on their own. I gave each group of two (and in some cases a student on their own) a card with the four principal parts of a specific Latin verb. I will explain this process further in another blog post.
As I was talking to one group about Latin verbs, I saw the group that was redoing their work on assimilated prefixes raise their hands. I went over as soon as I could. “How’s it going? Are you finding words you have questions about?”
And then the boy (who is not generally excited about classroom stuff) enthusiastically said, “Yes! Did you know that <journ> means “day?”
My first response was, “Yes, I did know that. We see it in journal, right?”
“Wait. What? In journal? How does that mean day?”
“Well, generally, how often does a person write in their journal?”
“Oh! Every day! Cool!”
“And what about a journey?”
“A journey? That’s like going on a trip.”
“Right. And your journey is measured in days.”
“That is so cool!”
And that’s when the bell rang and it was time to clean up and leave for the day. Here’s the really funny thing. These two that were enthusiastic about <journ> were the two who were working on the <ad-> prefix. I walked away wondering how in the world they came across <journ> in their search for assimilated forms of <ad->. But just now it seems so obvious. You probably already put two and two together, didn’t you? Or should I say <ad-> and <journ>. Too funny. I’ll have to make sure I adjourn the class tomorrow instead of dismissing them. I’d love to see their eyes light up with recognition!
SWI provides a reliable framework for our investigations and guides our thinking. Questioning becomes an expected activity and instead of being intimidated by someone questioning your work, you become interested, truly interested in what it is they question and whether or not you’ve misunderstood something. Individually, the goal is always to understand things better. In order to stay focused on that goal, you need to hear the questions and give them consideration. Too often we hear a question, take it as a criticism, and then defend our position, right or wrong. We’re not really considering the question. Instead we are plotting our defense. Structured Word Inquiry has brought a culture of listening and questioning to my classroom. The words “right” and “wrong” have been replaced with “proven” and “could be, but I’m not sure about that.” That culture has made my room a safe place for learning. A place for true scholarship. It is an exciting place to be every single day!
The first time I met Peter Pan, I was sitting in my living room with my brothers and sisters. He didn’t come flying through the picture window or anything else as exciting and dramatic as that. Instead, he flew into my imagination via our television set. Even though the version we were watching was old, the scenery was the furthest thing from life-like, and Peter Pan was himself played by a woman (Mary Martin), I was captivated. The idea of defying the inevitable enticed me. For me the idea of living as a child forever was the heart and soul of this story. Everything that happened happened because Peter Pan wasn’t going to grow up and he was trying fiercely to get others not to grow up either. But, of course, none of the viewers were fooled. Growing up can only be prevented by one thing. And it wasn’t until recently that I read about James M. Barrie’s personal connection with that. Because it was only recently that I actually read his book. Thanks to Michael Clay Thompson.
Here’s the song that I sang for weeks after watching Peter Pan for the first time:
Michael Clay Thompson is someone I have mentioned before when speaking of grammar instruction. But his curriculum materials regarding grammar are only one facet of his vision of a “literacy ecosystem” that involves grammar, vocabulary, writing, poetry, and reading. I am particularly favorable to picturing literacy in its whole as an ecosystem. Like an ecosystem, each component is vulnerable, not meant to stand alone, and if instruction of it dwindles or disappears, the ecosystem as a whole weakens. If, for example, students are not taught about the poetic features or the grammatic stability found in literary sentences, their reading experience will be significantly less than it could be. If grammar instruction is minimal and found only in work packets, the rest of the literacy instruction becomes narrower in its reach. It is the same with studying vocabulary. (MCT’s Caesar’s English books are great for looking at words frequently found in English literature. They pair well with investigating intriguing word families using Structure Word Inquiry!) For it isn’t just difficult words that stop students when they are reading. It is also rich complicated sentence structures that are often missing from the leveled readers handed to students. Therefore, I will continue this discussion with that idea of a “literacy ecosystem” in mind. It is necessary, of course, to look closely at each system on its own, but too often students spend entire school years focused on isolated skills within each of these “habitat” areas. How regularly do they get to practice the skills as they interact within the entire literacy ecosystem? As MCT says, “All of it pertains to all of it.”
When looking for teaching materials, it is pretty easy to find books and ideas for each of the areas I have described above. But where are the materials or ideas explaining how to weave all of the areas together as you teach? MCT has such a thing! He has put together trilogies of books that have a common theme. Last year I purchased the trilogy that includes Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, we are currently reading Peter Pan. Below is the first paragraph from the teacher manual that accompanies the trilogy:
“The purpose of this literature program is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities. I want children’s minds on the books themselves and not on attendant assignments. It is by loving to read that children become literate.”
MCT lays out a plan for Four-Level Literature that includes:
He suggests a few activities for Preparing, but most of the emphasis is on the actual reading of the story. That is the main event, as it should be. The last two levels MCT lists are important in that they help a student think about the story and its characters once the reading is finished. The prompts for Creative Thinking are creative in and of themselves. They stir discussion and are intriguing to think about. The last level, the Writing, is especially important for developing a student’s application of grammar and essay writing skills.
While reading, there should be pauses to reflect on the characters and to clarify the meanings of unfamiliar words. When I pause to talk about the unfamiliar words, I like to point out how the words J.M. Barrie used are something he chose. He passed over other words that might have kind of fit in favor of the one he used. At the end of the story or after we have read several chapters, I might choose a quote or a paragraph from the story and ask my students to again tell me about the word choice. What does the word J.M. Barrie used bring to the sentence or paragraph that a synonym of that word might not?
I especially love the following quote from the teacher manual:
“I do not like the practice of traditional written quizzes every so many chapters; that is too intrusive. It breaks the continuum of the reading. We should leave the story alone as much as possible. Our pedagogy should tiptoe and whisper.”
I love the reminder that we as teachers need to limit our interruptions to the reading. With that being said, in each of the books MCT includes in his trilogies, he does indeed interrupt the reading to point out some things. Sometimes it is the grammar of a particular sentence that he points out. Sometimes it is the rhythm of a particular sentence that is reinforcing the message of the sentence. Sometimes it is the poetic quality of a particular line, purposely creating a subtle feel in the reader’s mind. For example, here is one of the “language illustrations” he has included in this story.
As you can see, MCT not only points out the grammar using his 4 Level Grammar Analysis, he also connects the grammar use to the writing. He points out the meter and the word choice and how all those things enhance the moment in the story for the reader. His interruptions are not a list of questions for the students to answer. They actually enhance the reading experience by pointing out something that the readers (and sometimes the teacher) might not have noticed on their own. This is one way in which MCT is pulling together all facets of the literacy ecosystem that I’ve described above. If you’d like a look at his materials, here is a link: Royal Fireworks Press.
Francis Donkin Bedford (1864–1954) – Illustration from “Peter and Wendy” by James Matthew Barrie, Published 1911 by C. Scribner’s Sons, New York
James M. Barrie was born in 1860. He was the ninth of ten children. When James was 6 and his next older brother was almost 14, his brother died in an ice skating accident. His brother David had been their mother’s favorite and she was inconsolable. James tried everything he could think of to make her feel better. He even dressed in his brother’s clothes. He spent a lot of time with her and listened as she spoke of her childhood. Her own mother died when she was just 8, and she assumed the household duties at that time. She also told him that she found some solace in knowing that David would be a boy forever. That idea of being a boy forever ….
J.M. Barrie knew he wanted to be a writer early on. He began by writing some of the stories his mother told him. As his career began, he met a family with five boys, one of whom was named Peter. He became close to the family, often telling the boys stories. One of those stories included Peter’s ability to fly. When the parents died (1907 and 1910), J.M. Barrie adopted the boys.
I’m going to spend the rest of this post sharing some of the words and phrases my students and I found which have strengthened our connections to the action and to the characters. First off let me say just how refreshing it is to read a book with such beautiful language! My students and I are reading it aloud and thoroughly enjoy discussing the action, the characters, the author’s message, but most of all, we enjoy the words that Barrie uses. I’m not sure whether or not readers in his day would have been as intrigued by the vocabulary, but we sure are.
As I list each word, keep in mind that I did not stop the reading to investigate any of these words. We only stopped long enough to clarify the word’s meaning and its use in the context of the story. It is my plan to share the following list with my students at another time in our day and give them the opportunity to choose one to investigate. I’m sharing things with you that I find interesting about these words and giving suggestions for possible activities.
One of the first words to catch our attention was perambulator. It was in the middle of a paragraph describing the nurse dog, Nana.
“… the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, …”
At the bottom of the page, MCT had included a definition of this word so that we didn’t have to look elsewhere at the moment and could get back to the reading. But a look later at Etymonline told me that this word was first used to mean a baby carriage in 1856 (that is what it is referring to in the story). Prior to that, the <-or> suffix indicated an agent noun. So a perambulator was someone who perambulated. The word <perambulate> is from Latin ambulare from <per-> “through” and <ambul> “walk, go about”. Here is an example of a matrix that could be created using the base element <ambul>.
What I absolutely love about this family of words are the compound words that can be made. Looking at <circumambulate>, we see the first base element <circum>, which is from Latin circum “all around, round about” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. So someone who is circumambulating is walking all around an area. The next compound word on this matrix is <funambulist>. This word is from Latin funis “a rope, line, cord” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. The suffix <-ist> is an agent suffix here and is indicating that a funambulist is a person who walks on rope – a tightrope walker! The last compound word is <somnambulate>. This word is from Latin somnus “sleep” and Latin ambul “walk, go about”. If you are guessing that to somnambulate would be to sleepwalk, you would be correct!
Of course, familiar words like <ambulance> would need to be noticed as well. But what does an ambulance have to do with walking? According to Etymonline, around the 17th century, the French used the phrase, a hôpital ambulant, which literally meant a walking hospital. The hospital was built in such a way that it could be torn down and moved to a new location. We might think of them as field hospitals. By 1798 it was known as simply ambulance. I know that any of my students would enjoy this rich treasure hunt!
According to Etymonline, <exquisite> was first attested in the 15th century. At that time it meant “carefully selected”. It is from Latin exquisitus “carefully sought out”. As it is used in the passage below, it has more of a sense of “with perfection of detail, elaborately, beautifully” (as listed in definition 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary). Both sources identify this word as from <ex-> “out” and quaerere “to search, seek”. So something that is exquisite is carefully sought after for its perfection of detail! That would make sense in the context of describing Tinker Bell’s skeleton leaf gown.
“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”
The word <exquisite> is just one of many descendants of Latin quaerere “to search, seek”. Others include question, quest, query, inquire, inquisitive, acquisition, conquer, and require. If you think about it, can you see how the denotation of their common ancestor quaerere “to search, seek” binds them in meaning? Perhaps this would be a great opportunity for your students. Have small groups or individuals investigate the present meaning of one of the words I’ve listed and then come back together as a group to share. See if the students can notice the common sense and meaning at the core of each word.
Another interesting word in the same quote from the book as <exquisite> is <embonpoint>. According to Etymonline it means “plumpness”. It was first attested in 1751. Earlier (16 c.) it is from French embonpoint “plumpness, fullness.” Before that it was a phrase in Old French en bon point “in good condition.”
“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”
If the word <embonpoint> is skipped over in this quote, the reader will get a different impression of Tinker Bell than the author intended! I quite like the idea that Tinker Bell had a realistic body shape. That is not the way she has been portrayed in any movie version I’ve ever seen!
According to the OED, it has been used as both a noun and an adjective. They offered no recent examples of its use, which is probably why it feels so unfamiliar. The most recent use they list is from 1876:
1876 R. BartholowPract. Treat. Materia Med.ii. 308 An increase in the body-weight and the embonpoint of those who take stimulants.
James M. Barrie, however, wrote this story in 1906. I wonder if this word is currently used in France?
Peter Pan tries several times but is unsuccessful in putting his shadow back on. That’s when Wendy offers to do it for him.
“I shall sew it on for you my little man,” she said, though he was tall as herself, and she got out her housewife, and sewed the shadow on to Peter’s foot.”
MCT defines a housewife as a sewing kit. I’d heard this term before, but was sure my students hadn’t. I was right. Later on that same day, I found a picture of a housewife that was used by a soldier in World War I through Wikipedia Commons. I’m glad I did because it won’t be the last time Wendy uses her housewife. The Lost Boys will wear holes in the knees of their pants and in the heels of their socks quite often!
It will also give us the opportunity to talk about why a soldier might need a housewife, and why this sewing kit would be called a housewife. In the 18th and 19th century, it was common for a mother, wife, sister, or girlfriend to make a housewife for someone who was going off to fight in a war. At that time, it was pronounced as “hussif” or “huzzif”. Read more about them HERE.
We came across this word just before leaving for a two day holiday. It was a timely find as this holiday is typically a day focused around a big meal. Before they left I wished them a great time with their families and warned them about stodging. We even joked around and wished each other a “Happy Stodgegiving!”
“You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge just to feel stodgy, which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it.”
When I see these students again, they will no doubt want to talk about how stodged they felt (as Barrie says, “…the next best thing being to talk about it.”)
Both Etymonline and the OED agree that this word is of unknown origin. The OED suggests that it is “perhaps phonetically symbolic after words like stuff, podge. I particularly loved the imagery in this OED citation:
“1790 W. Marshall Agric. Provincialisms in Rural Econ. Midland Counties II. 443 Stodged, filled to the stretch; as a cow’s udder with milk.”
I think “filled to the stretch” says it all!
Peter Pan uses this word to describe what he would be required to learn in school. I can’t help but think that his biggest hurdle in attending school would be the confinement to a schedule!
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things.”
This word was first attested in the mid 14c. according to Etymonline. At that time it had a sense of “performed with due religious ceremony or reverence.” Prior to that it was from Old French solempne and directly from Latin sollemnis “established, formal, traditional.” It has this sense of seriousness, and that is no doubt the aspect of schooling that troubles Peter Pan the most!
What is interesting about the spelling of <solemn> is the <mn>. We see this same final spelling in autumn, column, and hymn. Some may wonder why the <n> is needed since it isn’t pronounced. But if we remind ourselves that spelling doesn’t represent pronunciation, that instead it represents meaning, we are apt to look for another reason that the <n> is final in these words. If I take a look at relatives of each word, it doesn’t take long to see that the final <n> IS pronounced in some of the members of each word family. It isn’t pronounced in solemn, but it is pronounced in solemnity. It isn’t pronounced in autumn, but it is pronounced in autumnal. It isn’t pronounced in column, but it is pronounced in columnist. It isn’t pronounced in hymn, but it is pronounced in hymnal.
If we look back at the etymology of <solemn>, we see that the <mn> has always been part of this word’s spelling. It is the same with <column> from Latin columna, <autumn> from Latin autumnus, and <hymn> from Greek hymnos. Interesting, right?
This word was not unfamiliar to my students. What was unfamiliar was its use as a verb.
“I am just Tootles,” he said, “and nobody minds me. But the first who does not behave to Wendy like an English gentleman I will blood him severely.”
At Etymonline, I find that this word was first attested as a verb in 1590 with a sense of “to smear or stain with blood.” By the 1620’s it was “to cause to bleed,” which I think is the sense being used by Tootles in this story. At the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several ways <blood> was used as a verb, but when it referred to “to cause blood to flow from … (a person or an animal)” it was for therapeutic reasons, not specifically to cause harm.
1597 P. LoweWhole Course Chirurg.viii. i. sig. Dd Bee circumspect in blooding the foote. 1780 JohnsonLet. 14 June (1992) III. 275 Yesterday I fasted and was blooded, and to day took physick and dined. 1908 Brit. Med. Jnl. 13 June 1463/1 He was very fond of telling tales of..how the country labourers would come in crowds..to be ‘blooded’. 2007 M. NobleCase of Dirty Verger viii.107 She burst the girl’s eyebrow, blooding it immediately and sending the victim backwards, dazed and distraught.
Here is what Tootles did next:
“He drew back his hanger; and for that instant his sun was at noon.”
A hanger is a short sword that hangs from a belt. It was a common weapon used by hunters. What I really love about this sentence though, is the image created with “for that instant his sun was at noon.” Can’t you just picture this scene? Tootles is defending Wendy’s honor and all the rest of the Lost Boys are looking on. Tootles is having his moment. Just as with the sun at noon, there are no shadows cast on Tootles. His character is illuminated.
I know this word as a noun. We have a rain gutter on our house, and there is a gutter at the side of our street that directs water to the storm drain. But I am not as familiar with it as a verb, especially when it is not pertaining to a channel for water. James M. Barrie creates another wonderful image with an intriguing use of this word.
“Peter slept on. The light guttered and went out, leaving the tenement in darkness; but still he slept.”
As a verb, this word is first attested in the late 14th c. and was used to mean “to make or run in channels.” We see the same information in the OED where gutter most often refers to water being channeled and moved. But according to both Etymonline and the OED, it can also refer to a candle when the hot wax flows down its side by way of a gutter that has opened up. That use began in 1706. I’ve certainly lit my share of candles and have seen that happen many times, but never thought to describe it as guttering. Cool.
This word has been investigated by my fifth grade students in the past as part of understanding the water cycle, along with condensation, evaporation, transpiration, respiration, and infiltration. I remember enjoying what we found out. Prior to that, I was aware of words like precipice, precipitate, and precipitation, but never had a solid sense of how or if they were connected in meaning. I may have wondered, but if my tabletop dictionary didn’t make the connection obvious with its entry, I didn’t know how to pursue an investigation of this on my own. (I am grateful every day that I happened upon a fellow teacher’s blog, and that it magnified my enjoyment of language!) These are my own understandings of the words I mentioned:
Precipice – When you are at the precipice of a place or situation, you are at a steep edge with the possibility of falling.
Precipitate – This word can be used in many ways. It can be used as a verb meaning that water vapor is condensing and falling from the sky. Another meaning it has as a verb is to cause something to happen quite abruptly. It can also be used as a noun to describe a substance separated from a solution or a suspension (in science). There are other (less frequent) ways to use this word as well!
Precipitation – This form of the word is a noun, but you probably saw the <-ion> suffix and knew that. It refers to the various forms water vapor can take as it falls to the earth. It can also refer to the process of forming a precipitate (as described above).
Here is how James M. Barrie used <precipiate> in Peter Pan:
“Starkey looked round for help, but all deserted him. As he backed up Hook advanced, and now the red spark was in his eye. With a despairing scream the pirate leapt upon Long Tom and precipitated himself into the sea.”
Long Tom is a cannon on the deck of the pirate ship. At this point in the story, Starkey is told by Captain Hook that he must go into the cabin. Starkey doesn’t want to go because three others have gone into the cabin already and they have all been killed. Nobody knows what is in the cabin that is killing the men, and Starkey decides to die by precipitating himself into the sea rather than face whatever is in that cabin. Using context and combining that with the sense of falling that this word can have, it makes sense that by “he precipitated himself into the sea,” it means that he threw himself overboard.
At Etymonline we learn that this word was first attested in the 1520’s and meant “to hurl or fling downwards.” It is from Latin praecipitatus “throw or dive headlong,” from prae- “before, forth” and caput “head.” The chemical sense of this word is from the 1620’s, and it isn’t until 1863 that we see it used in the meteorological sense. Interesting, right? So in every use of this word or one of its related words, there is a sense of falling head first or the possibility of falling head first.
If you have not read this book with a child, I encourage you to do it. The character of Peter Pan is rather complicated. By that I mean that he isn’t consistently one way or another. Sure he delights the other characters and he saves them from harm, but he also disappoints them and sometimes he even lets them down. His personality is not as simple to understand as it is in movie versions. He seems a bit more human as described in the book, and that makes a big difference. It has led to wonderful discussions about what to expect from him next. The Lost Boys and the Darling children were at the mercy of his whims often. For instance, there were times that everyone ate food and other times in which everyone pretended to eat food. Peter decided which it would be based on his own preference. He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t consider anyone’s needs for that sort of thing besides his own.
Another character that we found amusing was Mr. Darling. He was so worried about appearances that some of his behaviors bordered on ridiculous. Okay, they were ridiculous! The scene near the beginning in which he is bragging about how he takes his medicine like a champ is particularly funny. As readers, we saw through his false bragging. We also saw the events of that night get out of hand because of it. Near the end of the book, we are informed that Mr. Darling feels guilty for his part in the children leaving and has imposed a punishment of confining himself to the dog kennel! The students had so much to say about that! “Did he go to work like that? Why? Did he sleep in there too? Why is he doing that when he doesn’t have to? Where did the dog sleep?”
Even if you have not read this book, I bet you’ve heard the following line in a movie or play version:
“Boy, why are you crying?”
This is said by Wendy when she is awakened by the sound of crying. Peter is sitting on the nursery floor and can’t seem to get his shadow to stick on. Of course, Peter quickly insists that he wasn’t crying. That’s the kind of vulnerability that he doesn’t like to show. Well, only pages from the end of the book, we find Peter once again in the nursery. He has come back for Wendy only to find that she has grown up and has a child of her own named Jane. Peter is so distraught that Wendy will not ever come to Neverland again, that he cries. It is at this point that her little girl is awakened and says:
“Boy, why are you crying?”
I will never forget what it felt like to share this story with those students as I read that line! They immediately recognized the words that had once been said by Wendy, but were now being said by her daughter. Their eyes jumped from the page to the other faces in the room. There were gasps and nervous laughter as they realized that what those words meant this time was so much bigger than what those few words meant the first time they were uttered. It meant there was a never ending ending to this story. And we all smiled big to know it.
My students would have given up on this book if it had just been handed to them or if they had been told to read chapters by themselves. Instead we read it aloud together. Sometimes I read, sometimes students volunteered to read, and when we could see a lot of conversation happening, we assigned parts and read it that way. We paused at the language illustrations that Michael Clay Thompson provided, and we sometimes stopped to talk about our reactions to the action or the characters. I helped when a sentence was particularly long or when I could tell that what was being read was not being understood. I shared my delight at a wording I wasn’t familiar with or a word that evoked a perfect image. The experience wouldn’t have been as rich with an abridged version. It just wouldn’t have. When asked why MCT doesn’t seek out modernized versions, he said this:
“It is precisely these articulate, complex sentences and powerful words that we seek; it is the very thing that we want not to miss.”
I get a lot of great comments about my blog, and about how lucky my students must be to be learning so much about English spelling. I appreciate each and every comment. It’s great that other teachers, parents, tutors, etc. recognize that the understanding I offer is very different to what they themselves learned when they were in fifth grade. Instead of seeing spelling as a mindless exercise in rote memorization, my students see it as fascinating because of all the investigating and discovering they now know how to do. There are stories and explanations embedded in every word, and every word is part of a family, complete with its own family tree!
What isn’t as obvious to my students, but is very obvious to me is how understanding the historical sense and meaning of a word can affect how a person uses that word when writing or understands that word when reading. Since spell check came out, many people are thinking that teaching spelling is not as necessary as it used to be. But then again, they are equating learning spelling with mindless memorization of strings of letters. They have not visited my classroom.
The people who read what I am doing and just know deep inside that this is what should be taught in all classrooms, often accompany their enthusiastic comments with questions.
“I want to begin, but do I know enough?”
“Should I wait until after I take more classes?”
“What other classes do you teach?”
“When did you start?”
“What if the students ask a question, and I don’t know the answer?”
“I’d love to investigate words with my students, but where do I start?”
I get it. When it comes to trying new things in the classroom, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially when there is no scope and sequence to follow. As teachers, we are used to having step by step teaching guides that set a pace that we can follow. I have always been one to understand that, and yet, I must admit, the professional in me has always felt a bit claustrophobic when using one.
Back when I began teaching 5th grade, I felt confident that I could effectively teach all subjects except two – grammar and spelling. The materials left behind by the previous teacher just felt ineffective. The words, “Get out your English book” could quickly drain the color from the faces in front of me. The students weren’t involved enough in thinking about grammar and thinking about spelling. Everything was “fill in the blank” and “write definitions using the dictionary”. As a student, I used to find that kind of classwork super boring and usually finished the assignment without thinking about what I was doing or why. As a teacher, I couldn’t honestly see any long lasting benefit to the work. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children how the parts of speech they were learning about came together to represent a complete thought. I knew I wasn’t really teaching children to understand English spelling. But how could I teach what I, myself, didn’t understand?
That’s why I was thrilled back in 2004 to have had the opportunity to hear Michael Clay Thompson speak.
He changed my grammar teaching life! His 4Level Sentence Analysis was intriguing to my students and they learned more about grammar than ever before. MCT made grammar thought provoking, yet understandable. Over the years, my students and I have done a lot of analysis at the board and had rich discussions about the role words can play depending on their placement and function within a sentence. Students don’t just fill in a blank with a good guess. They are able to state how they know that in a specific sentence, a word is a specific part of speech. What follows is that they understand how the meaning of the sentence is constructed. Since 2004, MCT has expanded his selection of age level grammar and writing books. Find a full description and listing of his language arts materials HERE. The following video was taken in February of 2013. I had already been using MCT’s grammar materials for 8 years, but this gives you an example of the kind of thinking required to analyze the structure of a sentence in this way. [You might notice that the word ‘our’ as in ‘our wagon’ was incorrectly identified in this video as a pronoun, and that I did not spot the error. It is the kind of adjective that is a possessive determiner. It is pointing to the noun ‘wagon’.]
Because I was so impressed with the results I was seeing in my classroom, I also began using some of MCT’s other curriculum materials to enhance what I was required to use for spelling. I started with his Building Language books and loved that my students began learning Greek and Latin word stems. I also incorporated vocabulary words from his Caesar’s English 1 book. Teaching some Latin and Greek stems gave my classroom learning experience a big boost! I was satisfied with what I was doing … until I came across Dan Allen’s blog in late 2012.
In 2012 I decided to start a classroom blog, and went in search of other upper elementary classrooms to connect with. When I happened upon Dan’s blog, I was fascinated. He took what I was teaching my students using MCT’s Greek and Latin stems materials to a whole new level. After a weekend spent reading every post on Dan Allen’s blog, I was raring to do what he was doing. I just knew THIS was what I needed to do. THIS was what would make a difference in the lives of my students. Dan was digging into words and letting his students ask really deep, rich questions about spelling. He was teaching his students that spelling is NOT just a random collection of letters, and that it is NOT meant to represent the pronunciation of a word. By Sunday afternoon I had contacted Dan, and he put me in touch with Real Spelling. Seventeen years into my teaching career, I finally began learning and teaching how English spelling works!
I’ve never been shy about trying something new in my classroom. I have always kept my eyes open for ways to make the learning memorable and at the same time for my students to enjoy having learned. Studying English spelling by treating it as a science would be no different. But in such a big way it was. This wasn’t just a new and clever presentation of the same old thing. It wasn’t a program, and it didn’t come in a shiny box with 1001 accessory books/assessments/teacher guides. It didn’t even have a hefty price tag! This was inquiry. This was looking at spelling with a scientific methodology. My students and I could start working the minute we assembled the needed materials: our questions, pen and paper to record our thinking, and dictionaries (regular and etymological). Whoa! I couldn’t think of any good reason not to jump right in!
So here I was, halfway through the school year, knocking on my principal’s door. “Would it be okay if I abandoned our spelling books and tried something different for the second half of this year?” I went on to explain what I understood at that time about Structured Word Inquiry, or as we were also calling it, Scientific Word Investigation. Thankfully, my principal was open to the idea, and I was given permission to see if this way of learning about words could be as powerful in my classroom as it appeared to be in Dan Allen’s.
My next step was to write a letter to the parents of my students to explain what I was doing and why there would no longer be a spelling list or a spelling test. Then, of course, I needed to pitch this idea to my students. Quite surprisingly, not all were in favor of doing away with a spelling test. But as you might guess, those who hated memorizing spelling lists were delighted. And so we jumped in. I reread Dan’s posts and also read Ann Whiting’s blog posts. She was teaching a 7th grade Humanities class in Kuala Lampur and wrote inspiring blog posts. (Ann is no longer teaching, but you can read her wonderful wonderful posts HERE and HERE). I became part of an email group in which questions were shared and discussions ensued. At that point, I mostly listened and learned. I adapted activities from both blogs to use in my classroom. And everyday we spent time investigating and understanding words like we never had before! It was wonderful.
But was I prepared? Was I knowledgeable enough? No. I really wasn’t. But I didn’t pretend I was either. My students knew I didn’t have answers to their questions. I was very clear about that. I told them that I would be learning WITH them. And that was the truth. We asked questions of Real Spelling a lot in those first months. I was also in contact with Ann Whiting and Dan Allen, who were both helpful and made me feel comfortable about asking so many questions. To this day, that group of students holds a very special place in my heart because of the extraordinary shared learning we experienced. Their enthusiasm and level of questioning played off of my own and our classroom became a place where thoughtful questions came to roost. Here are two short videos of those students in the midst of investigations.
By May, my students and I sat down to reflect on the learning. It was unanimously stated that I should continue to study orthography with my next fifth grade group in the fall. I felt the same way. The students felt as if they had learned to spell without really consciously thinking about it. In focusing on the elements in their word sums, and then how to apply suffixing conventions, they had indeed become more accurate in their spelling! Besides spelling, they also felt more of a connection to words. After having investigated and discovered the stories of so many words, the students understood those words in a way that a dictionary definition just couldn’t match . They had zeroed in on the denotations of base elements and the senses that affixes contribute to words. They could compare what they knew a word to be revealing about its meaning to what a dictionary said about the word’s current usage. So many rich discussions!
To reinforce the learning that we were doing, the students brainstormed words that might fit on a matrix for <star>. I printed the matrix out, and scheduled time in each of the three second grade classrooms in our building to teach those students about word sums. In this way, each of my students was paired with a second grade student and then taught them about writing word sums (and also the suffixing convention that deals with doubling). At the time, I had a self-contained classroom (one group of students all day), so each of my students had three opportunities to teach word sums to second grade students. My students found out that, “The best way to know if you know something is to teach it to someone else,” is a true statement!
When school was out for the summer, I needed to seriously consider what training/classes I would seek. The first on my list was a 3 day training on Wolfe Island with Dr. Peter Bowers. Having spent most of my life thinking there wasn’t anything to understand about English spelling, I found this training exhilarating! Pete had spent ten years as a classroom teacher, so I knew he understood a teacher’s perspective. His goal was to open our eyes to what was true about our language and contrast that with what we have been taught that could easily be falsified. He gave us lots of opportunities to dig in and learn in the same way our students would. I met some great people who, like me, were excited to be finally understanding things about English spelling. Many of those friendships have flourished since then, since we email or see each other in classes (through Zoom) once in a while. These days Pete Bowers travels a lot and presents to teachers around the world. If you are wondering whether he’s presenting near you, read more HERE.
In the years since, I have taken classes when I could, started a collection of reference books so I could research on my own, and continued to write blog posts like this one to share some of what happens with my students and some of what I notice on my own. When posting here and when teaching orthography to my students each year, I am always cognizant and appreciative of how my story with Structured Word Inquiry began. It was one teacher sharing and then connecting with another. My regular posts on this blog have been my attempt to pay it forward. I realize that not all who read my blog are classroom teachers, but if you are in any way giving a child truth about English spelling in place of gimmicky tricks that are designed to help a person remember what does not make sense, you are a teacher.
So if you know in your heart that Structured Word Inquiry will help a child in your life, think carefully about how long you intend to withhold that information – that adventure of inquiry. Are you one who is most comfortable waiting for the understanding to gel in your own head before sitting down with a child? Are you one who is most comfortable jumping in and asking questions as you go? You have to determine when you are ready. The child you are thinking of is ready already. Don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary. Luckily there are some introductory classes that will help you learn the terminology to use and some of the basic understanding needed as you begin. Here is a list of introductory course offerings available in the SWI community:
Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom – I teach a four episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Introductory SWI Class – Lisa Barnett at See the Beauty in Dyslexia offers a three episode (90 minutes each) online class. Check this out HERE.
Intro to SWI – Rebecca Loveless offers an online class. She also offers an ongoing study group opportunity. Check these out HERE.
An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry – Dyslexia Training Institute offers a six week (30-40 hours) class. Check this out HERE.
I am also adding a link to the joint blog/workshop opportunities (Australia based) of Ann Whiting and Lyn Anderson: Caught in the Spell of Words. Check it out HERE.
The important thing to remember here is that you don’t have to have all the answers as you begin. That being said, you do need to identify what it is you don’t know as you move forward so you can seek the understanding you need. Do not be afraid of making errors. Expect to make errors. Celebrate the day you spot them and replace them with a deeper understanding and new questions. Investigate and present your findings to others. Then have a dialogue about what you found. The most wonderful learning happens when my students present their findings. We all move our chairs so that we are close to the board and the presenters. Then when the presentation is over, the questions, comments, dialogue and learning begins.
I am leaving you with this great quote that has inspired me through moments of self doubt:
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“!