Etymology: tracing the journeys of words

One way to “study spelling” is to look at lists of words.  For instance, in any given week, one might get a list of ten or fifteen words that start with <kn> that one was supposed to memorize and then write out in a Friday dictation.  As to whether this would improve all students’ ability to spell these correctly later, well…it might for some, but I know it wouldn’t for others.

We do inquiry.  We ask why words are spelled the way they are, and along the way we analyze and explore these words.  A question had been on our “Wonder Wall” for a while about the <kn> that appears initially in a bunch of words that begin with a /n/ sound.  What’s it doing there?  Then recently someone else asked about the <wr> at the beginning of other words, so I thought we might take some time to investigate these and a couple of other patterns.  In doing so, I trust that we (really) “studied” the words, but also began to grasp some important concepts.

We’d been looking at homophones, a very rich and useful feature of English–uniquely common to English as a result of the unique history of our language.  English is sometimes described as a “stew”–it is made up of a variety of other languages.   Our ability to represent the same phoneme (sounds) with more than one grapheme (letter or group of letters) allows us to represent words like <hear> and <here> differently because they have different meanings.  Far from being troubled by this, students find this utterly logical.  What can be more difficult is knowing which of the pair (or trio) to use in which context.  So last week we discussed how spellings are often grouped by meaning associations.  So, <here> is related to <there> and <where> just as <hear> is related to <ear>.  No kidding.  These are etymological connections–word relatives.

Our spellings often contain etymological markers, traces of their origin and their journey.  These are not there by accident; they help to distinguish words like <know> and <no> but also echo where the words came from.  By looking at the etymology of words with <kn>, <wr>, <igh> and <wh> we were able to discover why these graphemes exist and to see historical connections between groups of words.  (There are no “silent” letters here; these are graphemes just as <sh> and <ow> are).   We could see how these old words, predating modern English, would have been pronounced and led to modern spellings.

Why did the pronunciation change?  Well, it just did.  Doug Harper, the creator of the Online Etymology Dictionary, talks about the “sharp edges” of English words kind of getting rubbed smooth over time, and I like this metaphor.  When I think of saying <hwistilian> or <cnawan> as opposed to <whistle> or <know>, it just seems like our mouths have to work less hard.   I expect it would have been the later introduction of languages like French and Latin that helped to soften that rather satisfying Norse/German throatiness.  But in those root words we hear the distant echoes of Vikings arriving in England in their longboats.  And staying.

The point is that our system of spelling evolved to contain these markers of the word’s origin.  (That <w> in <two> is another example–look it up, then check out related words where the <w> is still pronounced!)  Here is some of the evidence students gathered in this investigation, using various resources including their own knowledge and intuition.  I was very impressed, again, with their level of engagement.

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After this, I thought it a good idea to actually hear some Old English (up to roughly a thousand years ago) as well as Middle English (up to about 600 years ago, following the introduction of Norman French).  Check out a minute or so of each of these–we felt we could hear and see English developing!  (And hey–both in poetic form).

Finally, you’re going to love this, a video produced by my friend and mentor Gina Cooke that the students thought was great learning fun.  Prepare to think differently about onions:

And if I haven’t said it recently:  Parents!  We know you probably never learned this stuff in school–me neither!  (At least not as a student).   For those of you new to English, don’t worry–English is complicated but understandable!  Send us your questions, ask them of your own children, let them guide you through an investigation, share your results.  Learning together is fun!




On Poetry and Digestion

As systems go, the digestive system really is one of my favourites, as it has to do with food and strange sounds.  This doesn’t necessarily make it everyone’s favourite to study, pertaining as it does to, well, digestion.  Anyway, it’s in the curriculum.  So, I thought we should review our learning by making a Class-Size Working Model of The Digestion System (which is a Caldwell Grade Five tradition).   Once it was working smoothly, we invited students from other classes and digested them.  Nobody said digestion was pretty, or quiet.

Some of the students think I am making a special effort to bring disgusting topics to class but I’m really not–it just seems to happen naturally.  Call it a gift.  For instance, we are studying poetry–what is more likely to be beautiful than poetry?  So, because yesterday was Robert Burns Day, in which the national poet of Scotland is celebrated by Scots and their descendants everywhere, I thought I would share the poem that will be recited at these celebrations, accompanied by the uniquely Scottish national dish it celebrates: haggis My reason was to demonstrate that in many places poetry and poets are considered vital parts of the culture.  But once I told students what a haggis is (ask them if you dinna know), they seemed to miss my point.  Anyway, here it is: 

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this–it’s mostly in Scottish.


How big are your brain cells?

This might seem like a rather personal question.   But, just in case you were thinking it’s all snails and wheelbarrows in our class (see the previous post) fear not:  also rat brains!

This post appears by special request (Abdul among others) on the heels of our latest visit from Meaghan and Olivia at Queen’s BrainReach.   Today the theme was brain cells, featuring four kinds:  neurons, microglia, astrocytes and–I’m really only telling you this because of this word–oligodendrocytes!   Bonus points to anyone who can point to their longest “axon”!!  And yes, they brought in the aforementioned rodent brains in little vials.  (Feel free to have very mixed feelings about this; I do).  As usual, great, probing questions from many students today!

Below is a link to a cool interactive model of just how small cells are relative to other very small things.  (Brain cells do not appear, but apparently are about the same size as red blood cells).:

And, just because, here’s a review of the astonishing miracle of neurons:

What is poetry?

Happy National Literacy Week!

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been digging into poetryI proudly admit to loving poetry, reading poetry in my spare time–I even have neighbours who are poets (but are otherwise very responsible).   But I get that not all poetry grabs all people.

We launched in with “The Jabberwocky”, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  I chose this because, well, I like it, but also because it challenges the students to think:  What is this about??  And:  Is he allowed to just make up words?!  And:  Is all poetry made better by reciting it with a dramatic English accent?  (I think a lot of it is; that’s why Shakespeare talked like that).

The question “What is going on here?” is really about poetry’s demand that we think, that we dig deeper, that we have to infer (we’ve been inferring).  There is a great deal not told in a poem, left to our imaginations.  Robert Frost shares two wintery moments with us in these poems from last week, and in each it is the questions we are left with that make the poems so savoury.

Click on these poems to see them better.


This second poem (“It’s so short!” they exclaimed) is like a little puzzle.  We spent quite a lot of time on <rued>: (rue + ed)!   Awesomely, later that same day, Ryan came to me with his copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and said, “Hey Mr. Caldwell, you weren’t kidding about how new words turn up.”  And there was the phrase, “Which, he found ruefully, was easier said than done.”   I love that!  (I’ll let you read this awesome book to find out what the character was trying to do.  He spends a lot of time “ruing” in that book).

Today, I fired out a question:  “What is poetry?”   This is a wide-open question, but their ideas reflected their experience.  Then I gave them the three poems below to consider and discuss:  Are these poems?  What are they about?  How do they fit  with our understanding of poetry and writing?  Tomorrow we’ll spend some time rolling their ideas about.   I encourage you to read these with your kids.  See what you think:  poetry or not?   As always, your comments are welcome (and don’t worry about hurting my feelings–I didn’t write them!).

Before you read on:  This week, I’ll be encouraging students to dig through the many volumes of poetry I’ve brought in and (hopefully) find one or two they like to share.  Do you (yes, you) have a favourite poem you’d like to share, or an experience with poetry (positive or negative) that you’d like to share?  This is the place–or send it in! 


Click to read more clearly.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We began the day with a great conversation about Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  As usual, there were such brilliant observations and questions, with students bringing in what they knew about Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.  But I wanted to make sure we remember that Canada was not (and is not) immune to the kinds of racist division that are so associated with the U.S. or South Africa.  So we also discussed and watched a short video about Viola Desmond, soon to be recognized on Canada’s 10 dollar note.  Yuma said, “We talk a lot about the treatment of blacks [we had been discussing the history of slavery], but how were other people, Asian people, treated?”  Such a vital question!!  So important to recognize that racial discrimination has affected Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people, Chinese, Japanese and others at various times in our history.

By request, here is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

And here is some more on Viola Desmond, who I was not at all familiar with until recently but whose story–so similar to Rosa Parks, though taking place nine years earlier–deserves more attention:

Who is Viola Desmond? The first Canadian woman to grace front of banknote



Cell! Cell! Cell!

We are beginning to explore Human Organ Systems, probably the unit of study with the greatest gross-out awesomeness potential.  Yesterday and today we discussed cells.  Not an easy topic, and not central to our study (they’ll com back to cells in Grade 8), but it will keep coming up so it seemed a good idea to try and look at some.

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