“Common cement,” uttered by a young 7th grade student took my breath away.
We were analyzing words, phrases and sentences from a novel he was reading that had been giving him difficulty in understanding details in the story.
He had been reading a story about a young couple from his hometown set back in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s. He understood most of the plot and setting well enough but some of the details were fuzzy or downright confusing. As he read about this young couple who were going to a “Commencement Dance” he became confused. He thought they were headed to an event of some kind but didn’t know the meaning of the word “commencement”. Once he landed on this word, which he attempted to sound out using syllabication skills taught in previous years, he read it as, [ˈkɑmən sə ˌmɛnt]. He read this in a hurried kinda-way since he was not confident with his pronunciation of the word and he had no idea what common cement and a dance could mean. I was surprised he’d read this word as a phrase but after a moment or so I could see how it was possible for him to come to this conclusion. How devastating for his comprehension of the detail the image in this part of the story is supposed to evoke.
I care how this word evolved over time so I can learn about it’s orthography (spelling).
I care about my own wonderings about other words these two could possibly be related to so I will study the etymology of these words.
I care to try to understand the suffixes in this word, there’s WAY more to it than just trying to remember that ‘curious’ has a <u> and ‘curiosity’ does not.
Most of all, I care to bring understanding of this language that we speak so easily, to my students who struggle to either read, spell, comprehend or any combination of those.
This makes me curious. Curious to learn more and more about how the English language is structured. Is it possible to bring sense or order to spelling?
One thing I remember hearing often as a child was the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat,” which in some small but profound way, ebbed at my innate curiosity each time I asked a question and was met with the phrase by an adult.
Eventually, I began to stop wondering, stop questioning, stop thinking when words, individual or in groups, didn’t make sense. I saw my students doing the same thing.
Fortune rained down one afternoon during one of my many, fervid internet searches for a better way to teach phonics. I found the same components of what I’d been doing, repackaged in oodles of programs, butI also stumbled upon something different.
Something led by wondering, questioning and thinking. Something built on scientific principles of inquiry, hypothesizing, testing theories, research and the building of actual evidence within the language itself!
I had clicked on a presentation given by Dr. Pete Bowers of Word Works Kingston on Structured Word Inquiry (also known as Scientific Word Investigation). Boy, was my curiosity piqued!! He was talking about spelling in a way that made sense! In a way that connected words to other words! He was not looking for patterns or chunks or sounding words out. He wasn’t doing any of the strategies that every other program was touting. He wasn’t even teaching or selling a program, he was simply uncovering the sense and order of the real and true structures of our language and he’d been doing it with elementary students.
My curiosity got the best of me for the next few years. I’ve reopened wondering, questioning and thinking about spelling, reading, ….well, all of literacy actually. There is an oasis beyond phonics, beyond whole language, beyond balanced literacy and beyond memorizing spelling lists. And it isn’t just studying morphology. It is the interrelationship (dependency on each component) of morphology, etymology and phonology that drive the structures of this language. Each of these ‘ologies can influence the how and why of orthography.
Here’s an example of a small word study we are doing for the kick-off of the Positivity Project at our school. The first character trait we will study is ‘curiosity’.
Historically, the words ‘curious’ & ‘curiosity’ link back to the Modern Day English (MDE) word ‘cure’ and even further back, to the Latin etymon ‘cura‘ which has an orthographic denotation of (sense of meaning of) “care”.
When one is curious or his/her curiosity is piqued, one cares so much, he/she wants to know more.
Analytic Word sums (separate [verb] the orthographic morphemes):
curious —> cure/ + i + ous
curiosity —> cure/ + i + ose/ + i + ty
[the / bracket indicates that the vowel suffix replaced the preceding single, final, non-syllabic <e>, which is one of the 3 spelling conventions]
Many people look at morphology, but if you also study the etymology (true sense & history), you can find more words in this family — this is where meaningful connections are really made!!
Synthetic word sums: Spelling convention applied: (bring together morphemes)
ac + cure/ + ate —> accurate (replace <e>)
ac + cure/ + ace/ + y —> accuracy (replace <e> 2x’s)
in + ac + cure/+ ace/ + y —> inaccuracy (replace <e> 2 x’s)
in + ac + cure/ + ace/ + y/i + es —> inaccuracies (replace <e> 2x’s; toggle <y> to <i>)
se + cure -> secure (No spelling conventions applied)
se + cure/ + i + ty —> security (replace <e>)
mane/ + i + cure —> manicure (replace <e>)
pede/ + i + cure —> pedicure (replace <e>)
All words in this family carry the sense of ‘care’ in them.
accurate: done with care
inaccurate: not done with care
secure: free from care of dread or danger
manicure: caring for one’s hands;
pedicure: caring for one’s feet
There are many more and plenty of evidence for that Replace the <e> spelling convention too:
cure/ + able → curable
in + cure/ + able → incurable
cure/ + ate/ + or → curator
pro + cure → procure
But it isn’t necessary to represent every word in a word family…besides, it leaves you curious for more, doesn’t it?!
Studying the etymology of a word is far more valuable than many people recognize or understand. It uncovers meaningful connections.
It is in these connections and in these denotations that depth of meaning finds a new layer to anchor to, causing comprehension to increase.
Another way to represent word families is in a Lexical Word Matrix:
If your curiosity is piqued, you can learn more from the many resources listed on the Resources and Blogs tabs of this website. I highly suggest watching the embedded video above and taking a look at the research links on Word Works Kingston’s website. A colleague recently posted a stellar article on her website, Learning About Spelling that you may also want to read. Two more superb articles that explain SWI well are linked here (Mrs. Steven’s Classroom Blog) and here (Ann Whiting of Word Nerdy). Word Works has a host of research articles linked here. Of course, you’re always welcome to post your wonderings, questions and musings below as well.
Enjoy curiosity, it’s a characteristic that has created inventions, life-saving devices, solved world problems and so much more….I bet the guys at Positivity Project are full of curiosity!
Spellbound by the connections I see in word families, morphemes and etymons, I dreamily mutter, “What’s more pleasing than finding out that English spelling really does make sense?!?”
“Are you joking? No it doesn’t!” some plea. Others quip, “English has too many words in which the spelling does not make sense!”
“Give me an example of this nonsense,” I plead.
A distraught person nearly shouts, “My students never spell ‘please‘ right, they leave off the final <e> (*pleas). I can see why they do this; the digraph <ea> says the sound for ‘eee’ already. That extra <e> on the end is not even necessary!”
Another adds, “Well, I can never remember to put the <a> in the middle (*plese) because the <e> on the end already makes the first vowel say its name.”
“Oh! this simply will not do,” I plead, “We must open our eyes and our minds to the structures of words!”
The room begins to buzz with even more tension and grumblings of ways people misspell this word! I gather my voice, talk above the rest and scratch out the word ‘please’ on the whiteboard in front of me. “Please, let’s investigate, let’s see if there is more to be discovered other than letters and sounds.” The buzz in the room begins to settle and we begin our journey with one simple word.
We are too happy about spelling on International Day of Happiness not to share these unedited videos!
With at least 5 unfinished drafts about our learnings from this year in my Draft folder — I’m just gonna make this entry short but sweet for fear of running out of time to complete the post! One thing’s for sure, when one begins to understand a language that previously appeared to be crazy or weird, one does not want to post about it in a way that is less than scholarly — so as it often happens, I begin writing, then want to double check my work (for good reason!!). Then the enemy of lack of time and my personal need for extended processing time interrupt that all-important work. I actually don’t mind in some ways because when I set something aside for a bit then come back to it, I see errors or less than accurate information that I know I can fix or I learn something in-between time and am glad I waited to post so I could clear it up.
Today however, is notone of those days — this topic is time-sensitive. We are participating, school-wide in the International Day of Happiness today so my groups began investigating the words ‘happy’, ‘happiness’, ‘happily’, etc. to see what we could learn about their spelling.
We tried taping ourselves during the lesson but it did not work out so instead, I taped myself giving a mini-lesson. The first video is a condensed version — 7 minutes long — about the relationships between the spellings of words in the family ‘happy’. (NOTE: volume increases about half-way into it)
The 2nd video is longer and more packed with information about structured word inquiry, matrices, orthography, relationships of words, histories of words, etc. — it lasts about 15 minutes (NOTE: sound begins 15 seconds into it).
Both videos/lessons are not perfection — what lesson ever is? I would change things if I had time for editing and software to do it. For example, in the 7 minute video, I totally transpose the letters <i> and <y> in one section, and I used ‘happy’ in a sentence and called it a noun, but it is an adjective (She is happy.); but I think the overall understandings can be gleaned from the videos and that the information serves its purpose. At some point, I will remake them but would rather explain errors at this point and move forward with investigating more about this base.
We have plans to take this learning even deeper by further analyzing the word ‘happy’ and looking for more relatives — watch for that video soon!
Go out and spread some happiness! It’s contagious!
These past few days my groups have been learning about the structures of words that we use often in the middle of February….. love and Valentine. We learned the origins of each of these words. <love> comes from Old English and is a free base (can be a word on its own without any affixes). We learned that <valentine> comes from Latin and has a bound base of<vale> (a bound base is an element that must have an affix attached to surface as a word in English). Bound bases are very useful and can be hidden in many other words but only those that share the etymon (the denotation of the root word) are related.
We finished analyzing words to see which elements each was made from, looking for connections of meaning and structure along the way. Some of the words we analyzed:
loving –> love + ing (spelling convention: replace single, silent, final <e>)
loved –> love + ed
lovely–> love+ ly
loveliness–> love + ly + ness (spelling convention change y to i)
lovebugs –> love + bug + s (compound word: no spelling convention)
lovable –> love + able (hmm…2 acceptable ways to spell this one!)
unloved –> un + love + ed (prefix: no spelling convention; suffix — yes)
beloved –> be + love + ed (hint — we’ll talk about this one later)
Along with these wonderfully, lovely word sums, we also discussed the parts of speech each of these words can be — may depend on how it is used in context — grammar, grammar, everywhere!
He loves pizza. (verb)
Oh, pizza and steak, my two favorite loves! (noun)
The girl has a beloved dog. (adj.)
That dog is her beloved. (noun)
We also learned that some words have more than one way to pronounce them, like ‘beloved’ which can be /bəlʌvd/ or /bəlʌvɪd/ — the suffix <-ed> has an allophone — more than one way to pronounce this grapheme. We analyzed and organized our list of affixes into a matrix. We made a rough draft before making a final copy to display in the hallway.
One of the last things this lovely group of 3rd graders did, was to learn about other words that may or may not have a direct relationship with <love>. We did not find any relatives that share the same etymon even with a different spelling so we did not have any words to place in the oval (words that share etymon AND structure, spelling of the base, go in the matrix; words that share an etymon but not the same spelling of the base go in the oval).
We did have a few words that are often synonymous with ‘love’ or used to show our love for our friends such as: caring, kind, and friend. We placed those words outside of the oval on our white papers.
We found a word that shares the same letters and sounds as our word, it was <glove>. But, we quickly determined that their was no meaningful relationship to <love>. In this 30 second video, you’ll see the kids practicing this learning…..it takes a lot of thinking to see letters with our eyes and hear phonemes with our ears and STILL understand that they are in no way related. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, you know, so there are bound to be repeated letters and sounds but without a meaningful connection, those are just random things to remember. We have proven, through the progress and confidence the students are gaining with studying the structures and meanings of words, that the letters and sounds just are not as important to our learning as the meaning and structure connections.
The fifth grade group tackled the bound base element <vale> which denotes strength, worth, power, health” and is part of the word ‘valentine’ –we were surprised to learn it did not mean love but we can see how its denotations are meaningful. When we give a valentine to our friends or loved ones, we are showing them the strength of our affection or friendship with them.
Some of the words we were surprised to find connected with this base element whose origin is the same Latin etymon of valere, are ‘convalescent’ and ‘convalesce’.
con + vale/ + esce/ + ent –> convalescent
con + vale/ + esce –> convalesce
What most of us thought of as ‘an old folks home’ is actually a place to live while one regains strength and health. Clearly, this is a related word and provides a much deeper connection to both valentine and these two words. We also learned that the pronunciation shifts on the suffix <-esce> from a short /e/ to a long /e/ (IPA /ɛ/ to /i:/).
Studying bound bases of Latin origin often generates much longer lists of related words, both inside the matrix as well as inside the oval, so this group needs a bit more time to complete their work. They are working in pairs or trios and have had many days with one or both partners is absent (we may need to study viruses next!), however, one group was lucky enough to have less interruptions and has displayed their work.
Our first graders were in on the action too — creating a valuable [vale/ + u + able –> ] resource for their learning as well!
We hope you have a lovelyValentine‘s Day with your loved ones and we hope your love is [equ +i + vale + ent –>] equivalent to that of an ocean!