Stretching our learning through intense attention to words

win-dixieWe are currently reading one of my favourite books:  Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  It is a book rich in humour and sadness and complex language (and which I try to read with a Florida accent).  On Friday, we encountered the word <melancholy>–one of my favourite words, in that it means “sadness” but sounds to me like a flower.  Ask your child about the word  and how sad and sweet are unexpectedly combined in the last chapter we read (bonus points if anyone can remember what the <ch> pronounced /k/ denotes).


Abdul’s hypotheses for . (I am still hoping someone will take on an invstigation of the word , which baffles me).

If you saw the post on Orthography from a week or so ago, you may recall me noting that we needed to dig a little deeper into meaning.  Earlier this week, I gave the students a copy of one chapter from Winn-Dixie and asked them to record words they spotted as complex, confusing or new.   As is our routine, this included an analysis of the structure of the word.  Abdul wrote a couple of hypotheses for the structure of the word <pretended>, after which we discussed which we thought the most likely.

What followed was a wonderful example of how studying (not memorizing) one word can lead us to better understand a whole family of related words.  Having agreed that the base was likely <tend> students began to do three things:  investigate the root and meaning of <pretend>; hypothesize possible relatives; test those hypotheses using dictionaries.

As we headed down this path, many discoveries unfolded.  Having confirmed that the <tend> base came from the Latin <tendere>, meaning “stretch” we had to think about how this meaning connected to our understanding of <pretend>.  Students shouted out “it means to stretch our imagination!” and “we stretch the truth!”  (It is very striking to me how often our idiomatic language such as “stretch the truth” connects to the root meaning of words–watch for it!)

img_1074We then had to check whether our other hypothesized words shared this root.  Most did, but some felt like a “stretch” to see how the root meaning fit our contemporary understanding of the word.  For instance, we thought of “attend” as simply being “present”.  But the dictionary revealed an older meaning, less commonly-used today, to do with caring for another person:  “attend” to someone’s needs.  We could now see the notion of “stretching toward”.

And <tender>, which Nate had offered–as in “a tender steak”–didn’t seem to fit.  It comes via French from a different root denoting “soft”.  (I have a hunch it has a connection somewhere back in time).  But it turns out there is another word <tender> that we had not seen before, which has to do with making a formal offer, therefore a “stretching toward”.

Next along the path, the discovery that a “twin” base (a concept we just learned) seemed to exist: <tent>.  We could see that <intend> clearly linked to the idea of <intent> and that to <attend> connected to <attention>.   And a <tent>?  Canvas that is stretched across a frame!  (I have to think it relevant that the original speakers of Latin spent a lot of time in tents as they marched about Europe and Asia Minor, extending their empire).

But wait!  The word <extend> reminded Khaled of his recent protest about the Wellington Extension.  The discussion now became especially intense!!  Was there a third base here?  “Can bases be triplets?!” shouted Addison.  (You could see his excited tension).  Our evidence suggests they can.   “And they are all free bases!” observed Olivia, noting that all could stand as words on their own.

I hope this conveys how a scientific approach to word study can work.  Do I think that students who learn words this way will spell them more accurately?  Well, yes I do actually.  But much more importantly, I think they will understand them better.

Home Challenge:

Can you think of any other words that share one of these “triplet” bases?  Share your findings (along with evidence, of course) in the comments below!


Finally, a last-minute Christmas shopping note:  children often enjoy reading a book themselves that we have done as a read-aloud.  This book and DiCamillo’s others are all within many students’ comfortable reading range (or will be a good stretch).  And don’t discount how much joy and benefit children at this age still get from being read to!  The library also has all DiCamillo’s books.


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