This week I will be observing a lesson in a high school science class. The lesson will focus on naming ionic compounds. In preparation for this observation I asked to look over the reading materials the students will use. Having very little background in chemistry beyond that of what fifth grade students are expected to understand, I found words being used that I didn’t clearly understand. And, of course, knowing that if I want to increase my understanding of the lesson, I’ll need to understand the specific terminology, I did some word investigation.
The information tells us that this word was first attested in 1834. That means that the first time we have written evidence of this word existing is in 1834. And if you read further, you will see that it was coined by Michael Faraday on the suggestion by Rev. William Whewell and derived from the Greek word ion (ἰόν) which was a form of Greek ienai (ἰέναι) “go.” It is common to find scientific names for things attested from 1500 to present. During that time and in some cases even earlier, the Latin language was revived for scholarly and scientific purposes. This time period and the idea of coining words using stems derived from Latin and Greek is called Modern Latin. These words were coined in Modern Latin.
It is helpful to understand that the denotation of ‘ion’ is “go” because as it says at Etymonline, “ions move toward the electrode of opposite charge.” To see if I could find some more etymology, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The word ‘ion’ is defined as either a single atom, molecule, or a group that has a net electric charge. It doesn’t matter whether that charge is positive or negative, only that that charge is a result of either the loss or addition of an electron. Next I set out to find some related words.
ionic – <ion + ic> “relating to or composed of ions.” adjective
ionically – <ion + ic + al + ly> “relating to or composed of ions.” adverb
ionicity – <ion + ic + ity> “the degree to which something is ionic.”
ionizer – <ion + ize + er> “a device that helps an air purifier be more effective.”
ionogen – <ion + o + gen> “a substance able to produce ions.”
ionography – <ion + o + graph + y> “a form of printing in which a static electric charge draws toner particles from the drum to the paper.”
ionomer – <ion + o + mer> “a polymer that contains ions.”
ionosphere – <ion + o + sphere> “layer of the atmosphere that contains a high level of ions and reflects radio waves.”
ionopause – <ion + o + pause> “the boundary layer of the ionosphere where it meets either the mesosphere at one side or the exosphere on its other.”
ionosonde – <ion + o + sonde> “special radar used to examine the ionosphere.”
cation – <cat + ion> “positively charged ion.”
anion – <an + ion> “negatively charged ion.”
You will notice that the only two words on my matrix that form a compound word with ‘ion’ being the second base are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’. A closer look at these two words brings with it many interesting finds!
The Etymonline entry is interesting.
Notice that the word ‘anode’ is bolded. When I see that, I always follow such a word to find out more. In this case, I see that ‘anode’ is first attested in 1834. As is the case with ion, cation, anode, and cathode, the word was proposed by Rev. William Whewell and published by Michael Faraday. It’s pretty obvious that these two were needing to name components of what they were studying and finding! The first base is derived from Greek ana “up”, and the second base is derived from Greek hodos “way, path, track.”
According to Wikipedia, “An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device.” This definition makes sense if we think about the literal translation of ‘anode’ as “up a path or way.” If ‘cathode’ is the electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device, then I’m guessing that the first base in ‘cathode’ must have a denotation of down. According to Etymonline, <cat> is indeed derived from Greek kata “down.” So in this case, as the current enters the device it is on its way up (anode), and when it leaves it is on its way down (cathode).
Back to ‘anion’. This word has a literal translation of “go up.” An anion has more electrons than protons, so it is negatively charged. You might say that the number of electrons is what “goes up” in an anion.
Here is the Etymonline entry.
Are you noting the same year of attestation once again? And the same scientists who coined this word? Another interesting thing to note is written right after the date of attestation (1834). It says that ‘cation’ is from a Latinized form of Greek kation “going down.” It is a Latinized form because the Roman scribes wrote the Greek letter kappa as a <c>. Since we now know that an ‘anion’ has more electrons than protons and has a literal sense of “go up”, it makes sense to think of a cation as having less electrons than protons (positive charge). The number of electrons is what “goes down” in an cation.
A word about the pronunciation of anion and cation.
It might be tempting to pronounce ‘anion’ similarly to ‘onion’ and ‘cation’ to what we hear in the portmanteau word ‘staycation’. But we would only be tempted to do that because of the commonly used suffix <-ion>! When the <-ion> suffix is added to a word like ‘one’, we end up with ‘onion’. The IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘onion’ is /ˈʌnjən/. The IPA representation for ‘anion’ is /ˈænaɪən/. Compare this pronunciation to that of ‘ion’, /ˈaɪən/. Do you see what is similar? The <ion> base is pronounced differently than the <-ion> suffix! Let’s see if it is the same with ‘cation’. If we think of the pronunciation of ‘staycation’, we would represent it with IPA like this /steɪˈkeɪʃən/. But the IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘cation’ is /ˈkædˌaɪən/. If you compare this with the pronunciation of ‘ion’, you will once again notice that the base <ion> is not pronounced the same as the <-ion> suffix!
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <cat>?
cataclysm – <cata + clysm> “wash down.” Originally a flood, now a large-scale or violent event.
catalog – <cata + log> “list down.” Also spelled <catalogue>.
cataplexy – <cata + plexy> “strike down.” An example is when an animal pretends it’s dead.
catarrh – <cata + rrh> “flowing down.” It is inflammation and discharge from a head cold.
catastrophe – <cata + strophe> “turning down.” It is the reverse of what is expected.
catatonic – <cata + tone + ic> “toned down.” A mental illness in which the person is immobile in both movement and behavior.
catabolic – <cata + bole + ic> “thrown down.” According to Wikipedia it is the breaking-down aspect of metabolism.
There are other words that also have this Helenic base, and its sense and meaning isn’t just limited to “down.” I just included a few words with that specific sense so we could easily connect it to what we see in ‘cation’.
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <ana>?
anadromous – <ana + drome + ous> “running upward.” An example is fish going upstream to spawn. (The <drome> base “run” is the same as in ‘dromedary’)
analeptic – <ana + lept + ic> “take up.” A drug that restores your health.
analysis – <ana + lysis> “loosen up.” A loosening of something complex into smaller segments.
anabolic – <ana + bole + ic> “thrown up.” According to Wikipedia it is the building-up aspect of metabolism.
Like <cata>, <ana> isn’t just limited to one sense and meaning. I chose words with this base and this sense so we could more easily see the connections to ‘anion’.
I always find it helpful to collect more information about words I’ve heard, but am not completely familiar with. When I saw similar words like anode and anion, and also cathode and cation, I knew that I would need to understand both bases in each of these compound words in order to keep their meanings straight. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ has to do with a path or track. An anode is the electrode through which the electrical current enters a polarized electrical device, and a cathode is the electrode through which the current leaves. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anion’ and ‘cation’ has to do with movement. An anion has more electrons than protons and is negatively charged. A cation has more protons than electrons and is positively charged.
Knowing that <ana> has a denotation of “up” helps me picture an arrow pointed up indicating that the number of electrons is higher than that of the protons in an anion. Knowing that <cata> has a denotation of “down” helps me picture an arrow pointed down, indicating that the number of electrons is lower than that of the protons in an cation.
Now I feel better prepared to learn about naming ionic compounds.
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!
Why is it that in a traditional spelling program, students are not taught that a word’s spelling represents its meaning, or that all words have a structure? In most every program, they are taught only, and might I add falsely, that a word’s spelling correlates to its pronunciation. And because the reality of that doesn’t pan out, students learn to spell words as a rote activity. Students spend lots of time looking at words that share similar strings of letters. Ultimately, the expectation is that the student will have seen the word so many times that they will have memorized its spelling. In this model, the students know strings of letters. They do not understand whether those letters form an affix, a base, a combination of more than one of those, or have a sense and meaning on their own. See? The way we teach spelling is not about understanding. The expectation by the teacher and by the student (and by the administration for that matter) is that there is nothing to understand. English spelling is something you just have to memorize.
What a shame. Math would never be taught like this. Who in their right mind would have students memorize one 2-digit by 3-digit multiplication problem at a time with a goal of twenty a week? No one. Instead, we teach the students how to multiply and then expect them to apply the skill to any numbers and situation out there. We expect students to understand the operations and ask questions. We want them to provide step by step explanations for solving problems. But not so with spelling.
The people teaching it right now, are doing the very best job they can. I believe that. They are teaching what they understand to be the truth about English spelling. Ah. But there’s the rub. Their own understanding of our language is lacking. Hugely and completely lacking. At some point in our history (several generations back), it was decided that English was much too hard to learn, and so needed to be simplified. Latin would no longer be taught in schools. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who learned Latin in their early schooling, my guess is that they will tell you how very valuable it still is for them in deciphering what words mean. The very fact that at one point Latin was part of a school curriculum tells you that there was once an awareness that spelling represented a word’s meaning. But when Latin left the curriculum, so did the idea that spelling and meaning were related. It was decided instead that very young children must learn letters and sounds outside of the context of a word, and then apply that knowledge of, say,”S is for snake – s-s-s-s-” when being told to sound out words. But <s> isn’t always representing /s/. Sometimes it represents /z/ as it does in dogs. Sometimes it represents /ʃ/ as it does in sugar. Sometimes it represent /ʒ/ as it does in usual. And <s> isn’t the only consonant like that. Yet we start by teaching young children that it only represents /s/.
I’m not suggesting that children don’t need to know the alphabet. They do. Absolutely, they do. But what if we taught them to look at letters as we see them in words? What if we taught children about graphemes and phonemes as they live and breathe inside of words? What if we picked a word the student uses – better yet, what if we let the child pick the word they are interested in, and we looked at it together. The adult guides by speaking about spelling features, structure, and a word’s story in straight forward terms. The adult does not talk down to the child or invent silly rules or names for things. The adult explains and lets the child ask questions that will help them make sense of English spelling.
One great way to introduce structure to a child is to have them look at a family of words that share a single base. Believe me, structure won’t be the only thing that gets talked about, but it is the big topic starting point. Teaching specific base elements will familiarize children with how we can add and remove affixes to build a family of words. It will also familiarize them with the fact that many of the words in our language are related to one another by their history and their meaning. It opens them up to exploring that not only are we merely forming additional words that share the base, but that some specific suffixes will build word relatives that are nouns whereas others might form adjectives. Students will learn the suffixing conventions in a more meaningful way – with a more intrinsic understanding than they do currently. As is, they come into fifth grade knowing how to spell a bunch of words, but not understanding the structure of any of them. They know that some have similar spellings toward the end of the word or at the beginning, but they have no understanding of why or if it means anything as far as how we use the words in our writing or reading.
When children are starting out learning about a word’s structure, it’s important to help them recognize the affixes they see often in their reading. Even if their reading is not fluent yet, they can compare the words on a list and recognize that letters have been added to the base. They will most certainly recognize these words once read aloud and be able to talk about them. Let’s look at <water>. I found it on a first grade sight word list.
The first question should be, “What is water?” Let the child explain what they understand about water. Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it. Here is the IPA for water: /ˈwɔtɚ /. Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live. That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with <water> as a base, it might look like this:
water watered watering waterfall bathwater rainwater dishwater watercolors watermelon underwater
Perhaps these could be written on cards (separate cards for each base and suffix) that the child can match up and spell out. As each base is matched with either another base and/or suffix, have a discussion with the child about how that word might be used. The words might also be written in color as I have done to point out bases and affixes. You might begin to introduce to the child the idea that when added to this word, some suffixes will indicate the word is an action. An example of this is ‘watered’. I watered my flowers today. See how watered is an action? But water by itself is a thing. I might drink a glass of water. Draw pictures next to the words to represent either a thing (noun) or an action (verb).
There are some truly great descriptions of activities to do with younger learners at Beyond the Word, Lyn Anderson’s blog, and also at Rebecca Loveless’ blog. I encourage you to check both of them out to read some step by step directives as well as to see how students react.
Another thing to notice about these words in particular is that the parts of the words that are in green are bases. When two bases are joined, they form a compound word. How is rainwater different from bathwater or dishwater? Why are some paints called watercolors? What do you know about watermelon that makes you think of water? What is something that lives underwater?
Before my own children knew how to read, they loved making books. They would tell me a story and I would write it down. Then we would fold paper and they would sew the pages together with a large dull needle. I would write a sentence or two of their story on each page, and they would add the pictures. Every day we would read one of their books together. Bookmaking could be a fun activity using a particular family of words such as water.
If I could design spelling tests, this is certainly how I would do it. After a week of discussing the meanings and uses of these related words, asking the students to spell them seems reasonable. If each week there were words related in this manner, over time students would recognize many prefixes, suffixes, and bases. They would begin to internalize that often words are related to one another; not because they rhyme, but because they have meaning and spelling in common.
Students are ready to understand the suffixing conventions much earlier than most educators think they are. When focusing on one of those conventions, the spelling list could include a base that is likely to use one. Here is a list with <make> as its base. Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it. Here is the IPA for <make>: /meɪk/. Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live. That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:
make maker making makeup shoemaker noisemaker peacemaking toymaker remake makeover
Here are some points that come to mind:
~What does it mean when we make something?
~How do we construct ‘maker’? Is there an <-r> suffix or an <-er> suffix?
~What kind of a sense does the <-er> suffix add to the word <shoemaker>?
~How many of these words are compound words?
~What is a peacemaker?
~Do you notice how the <c> in <peacemaker> has an /s/ pronunciation? Why is that?
~Why don’t we replace the final non-syllabic <e> when constructing the word <makeup>?
~What is the suffixing convention in which we replace the final non-syllabic <e>?
~Many teachers have learned that the final <e> is dropped. That is also what they teach their students. Why is ‘replaced’ a better word to use?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.
Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go, why they are or aren’t replacing the final non-syllabic <e> on the base! Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:
If you want to focus on the suffixing convention in which the final consonant of the base is sometimes doubled, perhaps you could use this list. Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it. Here is the IPA for <stop>: /stɑp/. Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the children live. That might make a difference to the pronunciation. If we make a list of words with stop as a base, it might look like this. As you read it, can you spot some great things to focus on during a week of working with these words?
~What does it mean when something stops?
~Which words on this list are compound words?
~Use ‘stoppable’ and ‘unstoppable’ in sentences. What is the difference in meaning? Which morpheme in those words is responsible for that difference in meaning?
~What is a stopwatch? How does it relate in meaning to stop?
~Look at the <igh> trigraph in <stoplight> that is representing the phoneme /aɪ/. What other words can we think of that have the same <igh> trigraph?
~Now notice the <tch> trigraph in <stopwatch>. I wonder about that <tch>. I can think of beach, pinch, coach, and bench. The last grapheme in these words is <ch> and it represents the phoneme /tʃ/. Let’s start collecting two lists of words. One list will have words with a final <tch>. One list will have words with a final <ch>. Then we will see what we can notice about the two lists. There must be a reason that we use <tch> in the word ‘stopwatch’ and not <ch>.
~What is that spelling convention in which we sometimes double the final consonant of the base or stem? When do we double it? When don’t we?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.
Just in the nick of time, here is the Affix Squad, ready to explain the doubling convention!
Equally as important as discussing these concepts as a class, is the ability for each student to read aloud a word sum, explaining as they go why they are or aren’t doubling the final consonant on the base! Until your student can explain this, keep the following flow chart handy:
The word ‘business’ has always been a sticky word for fifth graders to spell. But that is because they haven’t been taught to see it as anything but a complete word. They haven’t been taught to see it as < b-u-s – toggle the y to i – ness>. From the time our students are little, we teach them that spelling is about memorizing a letter sequence without understanding the order or structure in that sequence. Or we do them a bigger disservice and tell them to sound out words to help with spelling. All that does is reinforce to the child the false notion that English spelling is ridiculous and unpredictable. BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY!
Here is a list with <busy> as its base. Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it. Here is the IPA for <busy>: /ˈbɪzi/. Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live. That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:
busy busier busiest business busying busybody busywork businesses
This list provides the opportunity to discuss and solidify so many great consistencies of spelling!
~What does it mean to be busy?
~To begin with, <y> is sometimes a suffix. Is it a suffix in the base <busy>?
~Which words on this list are compound words? What is a compound word?
~Why do we use the <-es> suffix rather than the <-s> suffix to make <business> plural?
~If you want your reader to know there is more than one busybody, what spelling changes will you make to the word?
~What is the suffixing convention for bases that sometimes toggle the final <y> to an <i>? How do you know when to toggle and why?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.
Here’s a video of my students explaining just that!
After talking about when to toggle a base or stem’s final <y> to an <i>, then there is the extremely important step of having the students read aloud the word sums. Here is an example of what I have my students do when they read word sums and need to explain their choices regarding this suffixing convention.
Until your students understand what they are doing and why, keep this flow chart handy:
Can you see how several spelling lists of related words in which the base has a final <y> will gradually help the student understand these conventions? And not just a surface understanding, but a deep understanding with (for many) an automatic application of these conventions? After focusing on several word families that need specific suffixing conventions, it is time to include a word family like <hap>, that has several family members that use more than one convention.
Looking at the word by itself, use what you know about IPA to guide their pronunciation and match it to the graphemes representing it. Here is the IPA for <hap>: /hæp/. Please take into consideration any dialects present where you and the child live. That might make a difference to the pronunciation. Here is a possible spelling list:
This is an especially interesting family of words to discuss. Many students are surprised to find out that the word <happy> can be further analyzed. But that comes from rote memorization without talk of structure. They are even more surprised to find out its denotation is “chance, a person’s luck”. I love to look at this list with the students and let them point out the connection between each word and this base’s denotation.
~Which words in this family use more than one suffixing convention?
~When the suffix <-ness> is added to the stem <happy>, an adjective becomes a noun. What other nouns can we think of that have an <-ness> suffix? Are these concrete or abstract nouns?
~Which suffix could be used to modify a verb?
~Thinking of mishap, mismatch, miscount, and misinformation, what sense does the prefix <mis-> add to a word’s meaning? Can we think of other words with a <mis-> prefix that carries that same sense?
~Write these as word sums and announce each one.
Structuring spelling tests in this way strengthens what we understand a word to mean. It helps students see the connectedness between words that share a base that they have not been taught to see before. This will help when encountering words from a family that perhaps they had not looked at during the focused list, but because of that list and the understanding they acquired, are recognizing it in a new word in their reading. A student will gain flexibility in their use of words in writing because they will have a deeper sense of a word’s meaning. Just as we have a deeper sense of who a person is when we’ve met their whole family, we can have a deeper sense of a word too.
Structuring spelling tests in this way will require students to apply the suffixing conventions over and over and to make sense of when to use them. Currently, students memorize the spelling of many words without knowing which letters even ARE part of the base or affix. Learning that words have structure is such an eye opener for children. They begin to look at words differently. They begin inspecting words and thinking about what their structure might be and what meaning might be revealed in that structure. They notice the suffixes and recognize which suffixes cue that a word is a noun, adjective, adverb, or other.
And finally, structuring spelling tests in this way will give students the opportunity to expect spelling to make sense. Imagine that! Spelling makes sense! Students will be empowered to ask questions. They will challenge their teachers with the questions they ask. How refreshing! The class will become a learning community instead of a teacher with the answers and students who are afraid of giving wrong ones. It will become a place where learning is celebrated!
Of course, this is just a jumping off place. It’s an idea for spelling tests so the teacher can assess individual understanding. These will not feel like spelling tests to the students because they are writing word sums that they can make sense of. But I guarantee you that the word inquiries will pop up in every subject and at all hours. I was once stopped on the bridge downtown in the middle of summer by a former student who wondered about the structure of a word he noticed at his house. What could be better than that?
What makes a suffix a suffix? Seems like an easy question. As part of my “beginning of the year assessment of their understanding”, I asked my students just that. This is what they had to say:
“It’s after the actual word.”
“There is a suffix if the word is complete before you add the suffix.”
“If you take off the suffix, it’s still a word.”
“If you take off the suffix, what’s left must be an actual word.”
“A suffix is at the end of a word, and it changes the word’s meaning.”
“A suffix is not permanent. You can take it off.”
“A suffix is a letter or letters that can be taken off a word and won’t damage the word.”
“You can take off the suffix and look at the base word.”
“You find a word and experiment by adding letters.”
Interesting. They understand a bit, yet aren’t very sure of what they know. Seems like the perfect time to offer a challenge. A suffix challenge.
The Suffix Challenge
The students are placed in small groups of 2-3. Their task is to list a suffix and think of three words that have that suffix. The goal is to list as many suffixes as they can in the time given, each with three example words. As part of introducing this activity, I use the following example on the board.
Now I ask these questions. “All three of my example words have a final <s>. Does that automatically mean that the final <s> is a suffix? Have my three example words proven to you that <-s> is a suffix?”
Usually someone notices that in the word ‘dress’, the final <s> is really part of the spelling of the word. It is not a suffix. Perfect. So as they begin this task, they are keeping in mind the difference between the final <s> in dress and the final <s> in pencils. They recognize that while ‘dolls’ and ‘pencils’ are good examples of an <-s> suffix, ‘dress’ is not. They are ready to begin.
When they ask where they will find these suffixes, I suggest they pull a book off the shelf. It doesn’t have to be any specific book, just a book with words. As they skim the text, looking at the words, they will recognize a word with a suffix. And that is what happens. After 20 minutes, we stop for the day.
The next day, they have 30 minutes. Part of what they are to do this day is to print the information they have gathered on a piece of construction paper so that others may easily read it. Then I collect the sheets. Here are some examples of how they looked.
On the third day, I handed these sheets out, making sure that they didn’t go to the group that created them. I also handed out a recording sheet. They were to record the suffixes they felt were proven, and those they questioned. They were also to list words that didn’t seem to have the suffix that was listed. Here is an example of the recording sheet.
As the groups looked over the lists of suffixes, I circulated with my camera, catching the conversations within the groups. Here’s a snippet of what I heard.
I really enjoy this activity. I love hearing the students share their thoughts with their group members. I become so aware of what they do and don’t understand about suffixes and the suffixing conventions. I get a sense of which students have no understanding of a suffix. These are the students who list one or two of the last letters of a word and call it a suffix. I also get a sense of which students recognize suffixes in their reading and can easily list fifteen or more. It’s a great beginning of the year assessment piece. I will do this again mid year and see how understandings are progressing!
As a follow up, I asked students to tell me about suffixes they questioned. I wrote them on the board. We talked about the example words given and decided whether or not we felt the suffix had been proven in those words. These discussions took off in the directions they needed to. We talked about replacing the final <e> when adding a vowel suffix, but also having that <e> become visible once more should the vowel suffix be removed. We talked about suffixal constructions – meaning the joining of two or more suffixes. I could tell that this idea – that words have structure – was beginning to take hold in many of the students’ minds.
We began the next class with some history of the word ‘suffix’.
First attested in 1778, it is from Modern Latin suffixum “fasten, fixed on”, from <-sub> “under, up from under” + <figere> “fasten, fix”. So a suffix is fastened to something. Sometimes it is fastened to the base element itself, and sometimes it is fastened to another suffix.
It is also interesting to note that the <suf-> prefix is an assimilated form of <sub->. They are the same suffix, but with alternate spellings.
“Why was another spelling needed?” I wondered aloud to my class. “Let’s try this to see if we can understand why another spelling was needed. Everyone pronounce the word as if the <sub-> prefix was used instead of <suf->.” When everyone had said the word ‘subfix’ at least twice, I asked everyone to repeat it about five times in a row. Then I asked if anyone noticed a change taking place.
Several said, all at once, “I started out saying ‘subfix’, but I ended up saying ‘suffix’.”
“Exactly. As you were pronouncing the word, you automatically sought to make the last letter of the prefix <sub-> more similar to the first letter of the base <fix>. The result was suffix. That is called assimilation. ”
Now it was time to watch a video made by my students a few years ago. It is called Can You Prove It? It is a game show in which the two contestants are given words. They have to decide what the suffix is and to provide evidence to support their choice.
Following the video, I wrote the word ‘motion’ on the board along with its word sum. I know that this idea of a bound base is extremely new, so I wanted to show them how common this one in particular is. I wrote <motion –> mote + ion>. Then I asked if anyone knew why I put the <e> after the <t>. One student thought it was marking the pronunciation of the <o>.
“Great! It is! But there is another reason, as well!” No one had any ideas, so I wrote the word sum without the <e>. Beneath it I wrote the word sum for ‘hop’. I pointed out the similarity between these two morphemes. They each had a final consonant which was preceded by a single vowel. When I asked what the final spelling for <hop + ing> would be, they knew the <p> would be doubled. I was trying to draw a parallel and to show that adding a vowel suffix to *<mot> would force the same kind of doubling. And we all knew that the word ‘motion’ had only one <t>. So, to prevent the <t> from being doubled, there needed to be a final <e> on the bound base <mote>. I also showed them that when we added a vowel suffix to ‘hope’, the <e> prevented the <p> from doubling.
After that we began to brainstorm a list of words that had this <mote>base. Our list included:
As I wrote these on the board and we talked about what happened at the joins (the place where the morphemes joined), I could feel the understanding taking root. All words have a structure. That structure includes a base element which carries the main meaning in the word. If the base element can be a word on its own, it’s called a free base. If it must be fixed to a suffix or a prefix in order to be in a word (like <mote>), it’s called a bound base. When a vowel suffix is joined to a morpheme (a base or suffix) with a final non-syllabic <e>, that <e> is replaced. When the suffix is removed again, the <e> surfaces again.
At this point, I asked the students to tell me the word sum for ‘motivation’. I wanted to see if what we were talking about was making sense to them. Confidently, they directed me to write the word sum and then, before I wrote the complete word, we went back to check those joins.
As is usual when collecting words related to the base in this way, I asked how each of the words had that sense of “movement” that is inherent in the base <mote>.
Students recognized that when motivated, they were moved to do something. When emotional, their feelings moved from the inside to the outside and showed up in a physical way (tears, smiles, frowns, etc.). With the tv remote, they knew that waves were moving between the remote and the television.
When I asked what it means if you get a promotion in your job, one young man said, “Well, say you are sitting at your desk and typing away at your computer, and you get the news that you are going to be a manager instead. OFFICE PARTY!” We all laughed. This boy’s delivery was exuberant and funny.
So then I asked if anyone knew what it means if you get demoted in your job. Another young man on the other side of the room raised his hand. “It means you move down in your job. It means you go home and sit on the couch and eat a cheesecake by yourself.” This time I was the only one laughing. The rest of the boys and girls were a bit confused, thinking that the cheesecake would be a reward, but I understood exactly the picture he was painting. I just wondered how HE knew what some people do to deal with bad news!
So we are building understanding. Having a classroom of 23, I recognize that we’re never all on the same page at the same time. But we have all stepped away from the starting line. I love guiding them as I have this week, revealing bit by bit what has always been there, and then watching them make sense of what has never made sense before.
Some think of a suffix as something that comes at the end. But for us, it has come at the beginning (of our year, of our journey, of our understanding).
“While we teach, we learn.” This quote is attributed to Seneca the Younger, the Roman Philosopher and Statesman who lived c. 4BC – 65 AD. In my own experience I have certainly found this to be true. Today my students had a chance to test it out as well.
Late in October one of the second grade teachers caught me in the teacher’s lounge. She hoped that my students would be willing to present a lesson to her students. I was thrilled we were being invited back. The last time we presented a lesson to her students (last year), we had focused on the <igh> trigraph. She was so impressed that from that one lesson, second graders were able to recognize <igh> in words for the rest of the school year! I suggested that this time we focus on the suffix <-ed>. She said, “Perfect!”
I knew we had a lot of projects in the works, but this was something I looked forward to. Each of my three groups of fifth graders prepared materials and practiced using them. Then today I took the classes one at a time to the three second grade classrooms. Here is how I introduced the lesson. Then the fifth graders and second graders worked one-on-one to practice adding the <-ed> suffix to various words.
It wasn’t until I reviewed this film after school that I noticed the boy holding the two letter p’s. He is obviously confused about when it is doubled. He doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <jump>, he doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <tape>, and he doubled it when the <-ed> suffix was added to <tap>. Now I know exactly what I have to do with all three classes tomorrow.
We will reenact this activity in front of the room, pausing to point out the effect the <-ed> suffix can have on a spelling. I am quite confident that my students know that the <p> is not forced to double in the word <jumped>, but I bet they will struggle with explaining why it isn’t. I will then thank this boy for giving us the opportunity to take our understanding to a level beneath the surface!
As the students sorted words into the three categories (1. just add the suffix, 2. double the base’s final consonant, 3. replace the final <e>) I circulated to listen to the conversations. Back when we were preparing the post-it notes for this activity, we began by brainstorming lists of words that would fit each category. One of the words suggested was <agreed>. It was a great word to talk about then, and it was a great word to hear fifth graders explain to their new friends. The word sum for <agreed> would be <agree> + <-ed> –> <agreeed>. We don’t replace the final <e> on the base in the same way we would replace the final <e> in <raked>, because the final <e> in <agree> is not individual like the final <e> in <rake>. Rather it is part of an <ee> digraph. On the other hand, we wouldn’t leave this word <agreeed> with three e’s. No complete English word has three e’s. So for THAT reason, we write the word <agreed> with two e’s instead of three.
Once the students had completed the activity on side A of the construction paper, they gathered up their post-it notes and flipped the paper over. On the other side were the three distinct pronunciations that can be the result of adding the <-ed> suffix to a word (1. /d/, 2. /Id/, 3. /t/ ). Here is video of that activity.
As one of the second grade teachers was watching this activity, she overheard me asking two students about words in which the <-ed> had a pronunciation of /t/. Every word on their list had a base with either a final <p> or a final /k/. I looked up at her and said quite truthfully, “I never noticed that before today!” She replied by saying, “Me neither! One of the best things about your students coming to do these lessons is that I learn something new too! Will you please come back to do the <igh> trigraph lesson next time?”
Today was splendid! We were warmly welcomed into each room. The second graders were happy to participate and enjoyed working with the fifth graders. The fifth graders took their role seriously, explained things thoroughly and left feeling pleased with themselves. And, of course, having to explain things to the younger students definitely strengthened their own understanding! After all, a wise philosopher once said, “While we teach, we learn.”
I am always surprised when students new to fifth grade misspell words like makeing, comeing, and lazey. I’m surprised because they’ve been writing these words for many years. Obviously, they never understood whether to keep the <e> or to replace it when adding the suffix! I may be surprised, but I’m not particularly concerned. These are spelling errors I can help eliminate!
The following Suffix Flow Chart is borrowed with permission from Pete Bower’s book “Teaching How the Written Word Works”.
I made copies and had each student glue it in their Orthography notebook for future reference. To begin with, we read through the flow chart together. Someone read the first diamond. We imagined the answer was NO, and decided where we should go next. Then we went back and imagined the answer was YES, and followed the arrow to the next diamond. We kept reading and following arrows until we had read all the boxes in the flow chart. Now we were ready to practice using it.
I wrote the following word sum on the board:
smile + ing –>
Then I asked someone to read aloud the first question we must consider. Before that question was answered, we reviewed which morpheme was the base or stem and which was the suffix. They also wrote the vowel letters above the flow chart in their notebooks.
Now the question was read again and answered. “The suffix <-ing> begins with the vowel letter <i>, so the answer to the first question is YES.” We followed the arrow to the next diamond shape and read the question: Does the base or stem have a final, non-syllabic <e>? We looked at <smile> and agreed that the final <e> was indeed non-syllabic.
Then we followed the YES arrow to the final box where it said to remove the single, non-syllabic <e> before adding the suffix. At this point we crossed out the <e> at the end of <smile> and were ready to write the final spelling of the word.
Here is how the final word sum looked:
smile/ + ing –> smiling
Here is how the students practiced reading it:
“s-m-i-l-e plus i-n-g is rewritten as s-m-i-l NO e i-n-g”
When reading it aloud, the morphemes are spelled out. Always. The students recognize the absence of the letter <e> in the final spelling of the word by saying “NO e”, so that they are always cognizant of its place on the base or stem.
We went through a few more examples including the word sums “grate + ful” and “create + or”. Then I gave them each a list of word sums, had them glue it in their notebooks and let them practice using the Suffix Flow Chart independently.
Everyone got right to it. I would say that it took maybe three minutes before the questions began.
“I’m not sure about this one.”
“What is the first question to ask yourself on the flow chart?”
“Does the suffix begin with a vowel?”
“Well, does it?”
“So where does the flow chart direct you to next?”
“Does the base or stem have a final non-syllabic <e>?”
“Yes. But if I remove the <e>, the word doesn’t look right!”
Student after student said the same thing. And while I directed each one to a dictionary to check the spelling, I couldn’t help but notice a big problem. These students had been taught to judge whether a word was spelled correctly or not by whether or not it looked correct.
So I stopped the class and asked if my observation was accurate. In each of my three classes, 98% of the students said that they often wrote a word two or three different ways and then chose the spelling that looked correct.
So today I feel great. I gave them a more reliable option. Why not just rely on the simple rule beautifully laid out in the Suffix Flow Chart? No more guessing games. No more taking chances. A few less words to edit when getting ready to publish one’s writing. Who wouldn’t love it?
The last few days the students have been working in pairs and trying to find and prove as many suffixes as they can. I love this activity because over and over they are asked to explain their choices and elaborate on their thinking. It sets the tone for the rest of the year. I want them to experience that personal pride in being able to explain and defend one’s choices. By doing so we deepen our thinking and weave each day’s investigations into a larger understanding of our language.
In this first film, Tyler is testing out the process he will become proficient at this year. At first he is hesitant to come right out and make a choice. I got the feeling he was fishing – waiting for me to tell him whether he was right or wrong. But as I asked him questions and put the decision making back on him, I could feel him letting go of the notion that his answer must first and foremost be correct. He began to see that logic and reasoning would help him make sense of whether the suffix in <adoption> was <-tion> or <-ion>.
The next student in this film is Ilsa. She is playing around with structure. She understands how the building blocks work and fit together. Her word choices give us opportunity to be playful with words, and yet see the need to communicate meaning as well as structure.
In the next film Amanda is revealing what she understands about word structure. In the word <daddy>, she knew that when removing the <-y> suffix, the base would not be <dadd>, but <dad>. She also knew that in the word <user>, the suffix was an <-er>, and that the final <e> in the base <use> would not remain in place once the suffix was added. The only things she was iffy on were the reasons why.
Hanna also understands that letters sometimes get doubled before a vowel, but she doesn’t sound too sure of when or why. Calli is recognizing similarities in the words she found: <graduation>, <innovation> and <irritation>. At first she thought they each had a <-tion> suffix. But when she actually went through the process of imagining the word without the final suffix, she realized the <t> had to be part of the base and not part of the suffix. Kaitlyn proved that <-ive> was a suffix with the word <creative>.
As I walked around, I did mention that some of the words being looked at might have a prefix or another suffix besides the base. The students nodded as if they understood that. But then one of the suffixes that at least two groups identified was <-ier>. They did not recognize that in the word <happier>, there are actually two suffixes. In the weeks to come I will make sure they learn to investigate words to be more precise when identifying the base. We have already created several large matrices on the board in which the students saw that a word could have several suffixes. But today’s task was to focus on proving a final suffix and to be able to share our reasoning for our choices.
Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly. I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.
It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common. (Yes! Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)
A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room. She had something to show me. The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum. The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in. Here is what the student wrote: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.
(Yes! My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)
Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research. She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web). She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.
(Yes! Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes. Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words. Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)
So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students. I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions. They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.
I wrote <suffrage> on the board. Below it I wrote <suffer>. Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also. Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>. We needed to do some research. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.
We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”. The next bit was quite interesting. [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”. On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”. The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]
The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves. Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word. For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.
The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words. I wrote the student’s word sum for it: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>. I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel. What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?” Several students piped up with “Greek”. Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek. After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once. Beautiful. At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.
Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together. At this point we went back to Etymonline. We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”. I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.
With this information we created a new hypothesis: <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>. We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!
But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base. Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned. We looked it up. We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”. How delightful!
Lastly we looked at <aquatic>. When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth. We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water. Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking. There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.
I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):
“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek. What do you think?”
“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)
After viewing a video of Dan Allen’s fifth graders taking on a “Suffix Challenge”, I was ready to have my students do the same. My first thought was that I would find out how much they really understood about word structure. My second thought was that we could begin the year with a nice collection of proven suffixes which would benefit the students throughout the year as they investigate words. Beyond that I was open to anything that might surface.
Here were the instructions. Each group of three or four students would get a large piece of construction paper and the use of both digital and hardcover dictionaries. The task was to list as many suffixes as possible and to prove each suffix by listing at least three words that clearly had that suffix in their word sum. The groups worked for 20 minutes on each of two days. On day three, I gave each group a reflection sheet and a Suffix Challenge poster (NOT their own). They were to discuss what they saw on the poster. Which suffixes did the group believe were proven effectively? Which suffixes did the group question? Which example words did the group question?
So how do you actually prove that one or more letters at the end of a word is a suffix? (We had previously had the discussion that a word can have more than one suffix, but for this activity we were focusing on the final suffix in a word.) Well, I told them that if they could come up with three or more words that kept their meaning with or without the suffix, I would be convinced. Many of the students began with familiar suffixes: <-ed>, <-s>, <-es>, and <-ing>. As I circulated on the first day of the activity, I had the opportunity to see how little my students really understood about suffixes. One group listed <-ing> as the suffix and the words <bling>, <fling>, and <ring> as words that prove it. I wonder if this confusion is what comes of erroneously calling words that rhyme in this way “the ing family”. I asked this group to give me word sums for the word <ring>. They quickly realized there was a problem. I asked if the <-ing> suffix could be added to the word <ring>. The light of recognition went off on one boy’s eyes, and I knew I could leave and check in with another group.
The day the students reflected on the other group’s poster was particularly fun. The students were so engaged. They were interested in the suffixes they themselves hadn’t thought of. They enjoyed questioning aspects of the poster and then defending it. I was amused when I heard several times, “We don’t even think this one is a word because we’ve never heard of it!” I’ve learned so much in the last two years about responding to students during inquiry. I simply said, “Well, how could you find out for sure?” I have learned to simply put the inquiry back in their capable hands.
So many interesting things happened during this activity! I realized that students are more familiar with dropping the single silent <e> when adding a vowel suffix and less familiar with replacing it when they remove that vowel suffix. One group thought that <iced> and <sled> were not examples of an <-ed> suffix. Their first response was to cover the <ed> part of the word and see what was left. With the word <sled>, they were right. The <ed> is part of the base and not a suffix. But with the word <iced>, they didn’t recognize that the free base was <ice> and the suffix was <-ed>.
We had opportunity to talk about words in which the final <y> changed to <i> before added an <-es> suffix, as well as noticing that in some words the final consonant is doubled when adding a vowel suffix. Those two conventions will be talked about again. For now, my students are getting used to the ideas of explaining their thinking and defending their choices.
One last thought for those who want to try this in their classroom… In addition to having the students list three example words under each suffix, have them write a word sum for each. There was a lot of confusion about words in which the base had a final silent <e>. By simply covering the suffix with their finger, they forgot to imagine that <e> in its place. A word sum might help them with that.
Today I asked my students to brainstorm things they have learned this year while investigating words. When it was time to share, I was impressed with their honest responses and their sincere smiles. Just listen to the first boy as he shares his favorite word from the year … a word he will understand and appreciate all his life. His proud smile as he finishes sharing the word sum says it all. When he was done, someone mentioned that the base <phot> is probably <phote>. Yes, I thought. But did you see the confidence and pride as he mentioned the connecting vowel <o>?
Further into the video, a girl mentions that she was interested in the prefix <cide> which means kill. As she finished her comments, a wonderful conversation sprouted. Someone recognized that <cide> is really a base. Someone else asked about the word <suicide> and wondered if the prefix was <sui>. Then other words were thrown out like herbicide, pesticide and homocide. With each word, students offered definitions as the word related to ‘kill’. As word scientists, it is never a big deal to make a mistake. Mistakes are like springboards for fascinating discussions! They are an opportunity to clarify thinking. My classroom has become a safe place to question each other without seeming critical.
My favorite comment is the last one. I think it is beautifully put!