Category Archives: Language/Spelling/Word Study

Gone But Not Forgotten

That’s me…and my relationship with words. I think about their structure every day. And I miss making structural and etymological discoveries with students…

I decided to check the old blog today and discovered, according to my Clustrmap widget, that people are still frequenting the site. So perhaps I should explain the lack of new posts.

I am still at ZIS, but I have moved to the Middle School to teach math. It has been a welcome new challenge, but I certainly miss my 5th grade blog community, particularly those with orthographic interests.

Over the October break my family went to Ghana on a service-learning trip with the school. It was a magical experience on many accounts, and one that afforded the opportunity to share orthography with an incredibly eager group of students at our partner school, founded by my good friend Ibrahim Oubda, near Kumasi.

Of course whenever I was asked to teach I focused on word structure. And it will come as no surprise to this community that the children loved it…and understood it…and wanted more. There was no internet access, so no Douglas Harper to guide us, but that was fine. We were still able to explore morphology, etymology (mostly synchronic), and phonology. I didn’t record any of our sessions, unfortunately. You would have enjoyed seeing the kids, in an open-to-the-elements classroom, standing up each time they wanted to share, referring to me as “Sir”, and all of them, from young to old, paying attention, contributing, and learning.

A few girls, Mary, Patience, and Scholastica (yes…her actual name), “claimed” me during the week, something that happens on all these trips apparently. They followed me around, wrote me letters, and consequently we became quite close. At one point late on the last day, not long before tears started to flow (me included) at our departure, I asked the girls to spell ‘unhelpfully.’ Every one of ’em nailed it! And so proud!

Made me think this math thing was a bad idea… 🙂

The Lost Pete Bowers Chronicles

End-of-school clearing out also means clearing out old video. I found this deep in the archives of my phone. A glimpse of a very busy “day in the life” of Pete Bowers.

I’ll also take this opportunity to thank Pete and the rest of the amazing orthographic community for all they’ve done for our classroom over the last several years. Whether Old and Grouchy or young and downright giddy, each of you has absolutely changed who I am as a teacher, scholar, and person. I’m off to the middle school next year to teach math, but rest assured, orthography will also find a place in my lessons and investigations.

As for this blog, it isn’t going anywhere. I just may not be adding to it as I have the last few years. The videos will also remain, although I will no longer have the password and editing rights. I will contact the new teacher next year and request he/she take precautions to not delete any of our videos. If there is a video you would like to download, let me know and I will change the settings so you can do so.

I’m sure I’ll make a final post or two as we approach our final school day on Thursday. Until then!

Syllables vs. Morphemes

5th graders can never remember what perpendicular means…or the difference between mean, median, and mode…or where they left their pencil case. Normal. It happens. I’m not overly concerned with a student’s ability to memorize math terms…which, all too often, seems to be the focus, particularly when learning about shapes, which is a shame.

But what if we really knew what those math terms meant? What if we analyzed the spelling and the structure? Might it help our overall understanding, and possibly our ability to remember the endless stream of terminology we encounter in math and other subject areas?

Most English speakers are exposed to the concept of syllables at some point in their schooling. Either when pronouncing words peh – cue – lee – arr – lee (peculiarly) in attempts to spell them correctly, or when considering how to divide a word at the end of a given line while trying to remain in the margins. Oh, the damage done! This is, of course, why most people incorrectly identify <-tion> as a suffix, and why those same people think “sound” is the primary determining factor in a word’s spelling. Take most dictionaries and you’re sure to find a word’s syllabification.



But let’s analyze the word for meaning and structure, not simply its phonology.


Ok…evidence of a <per-> suffix. Then remove the Latin suffix <-ere> from the root pendere “to weigh, to hang.” Or simply look at the related word pendant. All evidence that the base element is <pend>.

We’ve surely talked about that base before, present in words like depend and suspend. But I’m fairly certain that no one made the connection with perpendicular, including me. We shared hypotheses for word sums, and then I asked the kids to figure out what a “plumb line” is.

plumb line

A tool that “hangs” to help determine if a wall is straight. Meaning connection confirmed! Will that help students remember what perpendicular means? Maybe. But more importantly, one word led to new discoveries and connections, as well as further affirmation that our English language makes perfect sense.

And what about the twin base? Do you know what it is? Let me know…quickly…the suspense is killing me.

ALL Letters Are Silent!

That’s right. Most of you have been misled. There’s no such thing as a “silent <e>” in cake or a “silent <l>” in talk. Phonological necessities or etymological markers (the <l> in talk is there because of its connection with tell), yes, but “silent letters?” No. Go ahead…test it out for yourself…place your ear next to any letter on this blog post. Hear anything? Nope…because, as I said, all letters are silent.

But fear not. The final nonsyllabic <e> does hold a special place in the orthographer’s mind. For example, Karl arrived first to the class yesterday after a two week break and said, “I came across a cool word that I’m wondering about.” Music to my ears! It was <pedestrian>. We all set about investigating, either that word or others the kids were interested in, and here’s what we found.

pedestrian (adj.) Look up pedestrian at Dictionary.com1716, “prosaic, dull” (of writing), from Latin pedester (genitive pedestris) “plain, not versified, prosaic,” literally “on foot” (sense contrasted with equester “on horseback”), from pedes “one who goes on foot,” from pes (genitive pedis) “foot,” from PIE root*ped- (1) “a foot” (see foot (n.)).

Our word sleuths found meaning connections to pedicure, pedal, and pedigree, but, surprisingly, not centipede or impede (they discovered those later), both of which would have proven the need for <pede> rather than <ped>. The kids were happy with a <ped> hypothesis based on their evidence, but I challenged them with, “Could the bound base be <pede>?” Time for some word sums and the suffix checker.

Most kids tested this one first:

<ped> + <-al>

Hmm…that would result in *peddal. OK…well…let’s try <pede> + <-al>.

Bingo! Evidence of why we need that single final <e>. And eventually the kids figured out impede and centipede and millipede, and even tripod – not a structural connection but it does derive from the same Proto Indo European root, *ped “foot”, as the others.

The structure of <pedestrian>, however, left us wondering. Several hypotheses:

<pede> + <estrian>    <pede> + <-est> + <-rian>     <pede> + <estr> + <-ian>

Word Searcher revealed only two English words with the final string <strian>…pedestrian and equestrian. LatDict was helpful, and led us to the following hypothesis. Still not convinced, however…

<pede> + <est> + <(e)r> + <-ian>

…but we love it when discoveries lead to more questions.

Matrix based on our current understanding:


What did we do next?

<carn> or <carne> in <carnivore>?

In a similar investigation, inspired by this video of two kindergarten orthographers in Lyn Anderson’s class (not a misprint…two six-year-old children capably talking about Latin roots and etymology and loving it), we wondered about the potential presence of a single, final <e> in the base element for the word carnivore. We also discovered that the following words are related, each from the Latin root caro “flesh” – carnation, reincarnated (the KG students were way ahead of us), carnage, and carnival. That last one prompted Alice to say, “In Italy, carnival is a day we don’t eat meat.”


Ritvik, Sean, Ben, Justin, Alice and I couldn’t find a reason for a single, final <e> in the base element (word sums worked with or without it on the Suffix Checker), so we think the word sum for carnival is <carn> + <-ive> + <-al>. Or, I should say, that’s what we thought. Then we saw: Latin caro “flesh” (seecarnage) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (see lever (n.)).

Wait a minute…is carnival a compound word?

<carn> + <i> + <val>

Uhhh…the Latin is levare…so the letter ordering “v-a-l” seems suspect. But that link to “lever” set Justin and Ritvik on another enthusiastic tangent…lever, levitate, elevator!

Another matrix, again, based on our current understanding.


And one more just because…



As usual…we’d love to hear about any challenges you may have and/or additional understanding you may provide.

Recent Word Investigations

We have several orthographic projects happening at the moment, so I will post the students’ journeys as they are ready to present them.

First, Tova and Emma wondering about the <a> in the spelling of <diamond>.

BBC Word Investigation Tova Emma from ZIS Grade 5 on Vimeo.

Andrew actually discovered the connection between <diamond> and <adamant>, another possible reason behind the presence of the <a>. To be adamant is literally to “not be conquerable”…an obvious relationship with the strength of diamonds. I know Ben and Justin are also looking at these words…stay tuned for their analysis.

Sean was wondering about the structure of <effective>, specifically if the two <f>’s are “double <f>” or, rather, separate, each a part of distinct morphemes.


If I’ve done my job this year, this group of students, like their teacher, will forever be intrigued (obsessed?) with the structure and history of words. It happens constantly, with me at least…I’m trying to listen to someone and then they use a word that gets me thinking, and before they’re finished, I’m more interested in that word’s etymology than what they’re actually saying to me. This occurs most frequently during meetings. I can’t help it.

It happened this morning in math with the word <dozen>. Where does that come from? What a weird word? Who came up with this? Why does “dozen” represent the number twelve? I posed these and other questions to the class. Alice said, “In Italian the word for <dozen> is dozzina,” which prompted a glorious list of words for <dozen> to be shared from our various languages.

Our many German speakers eventually wondered about the word for <ten> – zehn, and its relation to <dozen>. At that point, Lydia said, “I wonder if the <do> in <dozen> is like the <do> in <dodecagon> and has something to do with ‘two’.”

Hmm…ten and two is twelve.

Let’s see what Douglas has to say…



You can see the results for ten here, part of which indicates Old German zehan and German zehn. OK…so English is a Germanic language…the Old English (West Saxon) word for <ten> was tien…does the <z> first appear in Old High German and is it related to the <z> in <dozen>, or is the <z> in the English word a result of the Old French dozaine…Spanish diez…hmmm…

We’re left with questions. Success!

I’m also left with a new appreciation for the word <dozen>, the current hypothesis for which is <do> + <zen>…”two and ten.”

Orthographic Drought?

Nope…far from it. Over the years, however, readers have grown accustomed to much more frequent orthographic posts. Why so long since the last one?

In short…I’ve been too busy. I simply haven’t recorded or documented any of our word analysis sessions. But have they happened? Absolutely. Every day. Orthography pervades all that we do. It’s who we are. There  needn’t be an “Orthography Hour” every Tuesday or Wednesday, or predetermined lessons based on my narrow agenda. I don’t want the kids to get the message that being curious about words can only happen when I say so.

And I think it’s worked.

I’m delighted at how many of the students’ iTime projects include some etymological reference or another. And word structure challenges happen throughout the day. Just an hour ago, while Abby was presenting about electrical energy, Maya wondered, “Where does the word <lightning> come from?” And then others chimed in, “I think the base is <light>?” and then others, “But is <-ning> a suffix?” Happens all the time. So good.

Another example – Emma misspelled the word <competition> as *<compatition> the other day. Brilliant mistake. However, just by considering one synchronic relative, <compete>, she was able to see the sense and reason behind the <e> instead of the <a>.

Similarly, someone attempting to spell <muscle> wrote *mucsel>. They knew there was a <c> and an <s>, but the order obviously didn’t make sense. Synchronic etymology to the rescue once again! If someone has big muscles, how might we describe them? Other than genetically gifted and/or probably a bit vain? We might call them <muscular>. Problem solved, sense and reason restored.

And one more for good measure. A student wrote *<misted> for <missed>. This is not the sign of an unintelligent, weak speller, but rather an indication that this child does exactly as she’s been told over the years – sound it out. I asked for the base element…she replied “miss”…I asked her to spell it…she said <mist>…I asked for the present tense…she replied <mis>…I briefly mentioned a convention of English that doesn’t allow lexical words to end in a single <s> and then gave her the spelling <miss>…she agreed and smiled…and what’s the suffix?…she confidently offered <-ed>, offering examples of its presence in other words.

These are but three examples of the types of spur-of-the-moment, as-needed conversations that happen throughout the day.

And I’ll leave you with Thea. She approached me recently and said, “I really want another word to analyze, one like <system>…a really complex one.” Music to my ears. I offered <unrecognizable>, a word that Lydia had used in a piece earlier that day. And I’ll leave it that, audience. Feel free to ponder that word along with Thea. I’m sure she’ll share her discoveries and hypotheses soon!

Andrew’s iTime Project (and we’ll sneak in some orthography)

We learn something every day. Prompted by Andrew’s Latin lesson on the meaning of ‘lego,’ I checked out Etymonline’s entry, just as Andrew had while researching for his project. (He’s not the first to include an orthographic section in his iTime presentation.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 17.38.32

Lucky coincidence that ‘lego’ means “I put together” in Latin? Or did good old Ole actually know what he was doing? Fun…

Thea Analyzes ‘System’

This blog often gives the impression that our classroom is the land of milk and honey, that we effortlessly uncover amazing orthographic truths, willingly and simultaneously, and that all students are fully engaged in every step of the detective work. Additionally, I know that I portray myself as the masterful orchestrator of this scholarly bliss, this dance of inquiry and scientific investigation.

But that’s not always the case.

I often say the wrong thing, or reveal too much too soon, or don’t allow adequate time for struggle and reflection. Sometimes the kids lose interest, or they goof off, or they spend entirely too much time on a misguided project, a sign of my failure more than anything else. This last week before the October break, excitement for the holiday undoubtedly a factor, was a bit of a mess, the type that makes one question one’s role as an educator.

And then Thea came along, literally in the last fifteen minutes of a Friday afternoon before vacation, and shared the following. Thank you, Thea, for rescuing me from my pity party.

Suffix Challenge!

After Pete’s visit this week, a few teachers asked me, “How do I start?” Same question I asked for several years, and the same most teachers ask when they see Real Spelling or Structured Word Inquiry for the first time. The activity we did today, I think, would be a good starting point, the kind of generative provocation that can lead in numerous directions, result in numerous discoveries, and most importantly, inspire numerous questions.

Two teams with the same goal. Propose and prove as many suffixes as possible. Go!

My Movie 2 from ZIS Grade 5 on Vimeo.

I loved the debate about a proposed <-id> suffix. That group offered <avoid> as proof, but when questioned about *<avo> as a morpheme, they realized they didn’t have the necessary evidence. The same happened with the word <lid>. We eventually met as a group and discussed the word <horrid>, mostly because several kids are currently writing horror stories. Its word sum would be <hor> + <-id>. The <r> doubles because of suffixing conventions that we are slowly familiarizing ourselves with. While looking at Word Searcher together, Nida pointed out <morbid>. Well spotted, Nida! Thinking that <morbid> had some connection with words related to death, like mortal, I asked our multilingual class for the words for death in other languages.

This picture does NOT do that conversation justice!