The Secret of Love

Alright, it’s Valentine’s Day–a day to think about love and all its mystery.  A perfect day to consider the burning question, “Why don’t we just spell it <luv>?”  Wouldn’t that be simpler?  And what’s with the silent <e>?  What is its purpose?   Go ahead and think about it.  What about <luv> doesn’t seem right to you?  Feel free to ask your Grade Five Valentine if they can explain.

Why, why, why, why?  Nothing makes me happier than a bunch of students (scientists) who ask “Why?”  I was delighted that even the couple of students who knew the rules that dictate the spelling of <love> were furiously asking “Why?!”–“Why can’t we have a word end in <v>?”  “Why can’t we have a <u> next to <v>?”  So great to see them pushing for explanation instead of being content with memorization.  See for yourself what we hit upon:





On being a bonehead and other revelations

In case your child didn’t show you this or explain it, today we continued our look at poetry and Greek by examing the fabulous names associated with dinosaurs.  Students should be able to tell you about the structure and meaning of this dinosaur’s name,  as well as explain the meaning of this poem.

Below that is a list of some base elements from Greek that are used to form a wide variety of English words.  We began the challenge of seeing if we could find some.  Several students were quick to spot <hipp + o + potam + us>–“river horse”; Khaled and Carlos built <tele + scope> (later this week we will get to try out a <steth + o + scope>); Olivia and Presley and others had long lists developing–they figured out that <din + o + saur> means “terrible lizard”; and we discussed the relationship between pterodactyls and helicopters–can you see what they share?  (Thankfully it wasn’t the skies).   My favourite was Addison’s discovery that <astronaut> means “star sailor”–isn’t that beautiful?

I think our neighbours’ president might be a xenophobe!  See if you can find a few more and send them in.  We’ll take them up next day.  A fun little project will follow later this week.


















Click on the sheet to enlarge:Copyright Real Spelling

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!




A wee apology and an update

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about orthography and highlighted videos the students had made about twin bases.  I also commented on some of the things that, after watching the videos, I felt were going to need some more emphasis.

In the blur of that week, however, I missed a video!  Never saw it, never posted it, and while I recall wondering about where the work of these students went, just never got back to it.  And the students, Abbu, Ethan and Ryan are the Three Students Most Likely to Never Speak Up About Being Neglected.   Then–yesterday–I found it!  And it’s a really good little summary of what we know about twin bases with exactly the emphasis on meaning that I was looking for!

So, with apologies to Ryan and Ethan and Abbu (and the hope they will be more on my case in the future) I present:

I really appreciate a couple of things about this investigation, including what it show about these scientists’ ability to question their own findings and seek supporting evidence.  But what I most love are the questions I am left with, such as do twin bases only come from Latin roots?  I love it when our learning leads us to new learning.

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.



This post has been updated from its original.img_0924


Is anybody missing weekly spelling lists?

We don’t do spelling.  We are orthographers, word scientists.  We study the writing system:  we ask questions, make discoveries, explore and learn concepts, test hypotheses.  And we teach as you will see from the work below.

  • img_0857One of the first concepts we learned was that all words have a base.  In many words, this base can be built upon with suffixes and prefixes.  Here you can see a matrix that Seohyeon, Sitara and Wed worked on around the base element <heal>.  Check out all the concepts touched upon in this on investigation–homophones, shifts in pronunciation, and so on.
  • img_1039img_1036Later, we discovered that some bases are free (can stand as a word on their own) but other bases are bound (can only exist in words with affixes).  At right is a matrix that Kyle and Nate were beginning to work on with the bound base <pose> which they have discovered comes from Latin ponere meaning “put or place”.  Interestingly, they are proposing that in the word <position> there is an <-ite> suffix.  This was interesting for Abbu to hear, as she had been wondering about whether there was an <-ity> suffix.  (Sometimes scientists doing parallel investigations draw conclusions that help one another).

Our guiding questions for investigating words:

  • What does it mean?
  • How is it built?
  • What are its relatives?

Recently, we came across the concept of twin bases and so we investigated several of these.  I have assured them that many of these concepts are as new to you, their parents and public, as they were to me not very long ago.  Here are the results, a chance for “experts” to share their understanding, for your elucidation.   Both the investigating and the film-making are new processes, as unpolished as one would expect.  But I hope the learning is as evident to you as it was to me.  I trust there is learning here for you also!



Reflecting upon these videos, I can see there are some things worth reviewing and emphasizing.  For instance, I can see that spelling out affixes (because they aren’t words) and bases (because their pronunciation shifts) has not been embraced by everyone.  It took me a long time to do so as well; students will do it when they fully understand why to do it.  Also, it became clear through the process of making these that students were focussed on the structure of their words but had not really focussed on the meaning of the related words.  Towards the end of the last video, Abdul demonstrates how understanding the meaning of <vert> can show us how <advertise> literally means getting someone to “turn toward something”.   This is the point of this work!  So the good news is that we have work ahead.

Update:  Please see this post with an additional video on twin bases that I totally missed doing this original post!

P.A. Day Word Homework

Do you find yourself struggling to fill a whole extra day away from school?  Fear not–I have some relief!  Here’s a bit of word thinking or discussion that could happen.

For the students who were away from class enjoying the world’s most popular sport (that isn’t rugby):

dscn9996I hope you had fun at the soccer tournament!  While you were running about, we were having a rich discussion about the words pictured at right.  We learned quite a lot from asking questions about these three simple little words.  We’ll share our findings on Monday, but just so you don’t feel left out:  Why do these three words have to be spelled the way they are?  (Why does <too> have to be the three-letter word instead of the two-letter word?) Why is there a <w> in <two>?

Note:  I haven’t done a post yet about our approach to word study this year which will be familiar to some and new to others.  For now, know that we are working from the proposition that “English spelling makes sense.  All spellings are logical and explainable.”  If you don’t believe that statement (and you or your child may not yet) stay tuned!

For the students who were in class using word investigation tools:

See what you can remember that you can share with your families.  (Feel free to use the links at the sidebar of this blog to get to the Word Searcher of Etymonline).  And here’s a question that someone (who were you?) called out yesterday and we never got to:   Can you think of a reason why one of the words couldn’t have been spelled <tu>?


Have a great weekend!  Play outside!  See you Monday!