Category Archives: Language/Spelling/Word Study

Thank You Pete Bowers!

This past weekend, Pete Bowers took time out of his already busy world tour (workshops for schools in China, Dresden, and Lausanne) to make a relatively last-minute appearance at ZIS. And we’re glad he did! On Monday, we took advantage of Pete’s kindness, his passion, and most importantly, his knowledge of the English orthographic system, all captured in the videos below. (A big thanks to Mike Boulanger who taught me how to upload lengthy, “over the limit” videos!)

Pete’s first stop? Grade 1…

After reflecting with the Grade 1 teachers, Pete was quickly on to Grade 5, making it to three different classrooms for an hour each. It’s amazing to watch how he masterfully presents and inspires students to question and explore.

Mrs. Sikora’s class:

Miss Vinclair’s class:

Mr. Allen’s class:

After that final lesson, Pete welcomed 30 teachers and administrators to share the key principals of Structured Word Inquiry. Note: this workshop was not required…pretty good turn out!

I’ve known Pete for several years now, but this was the first time I actually saw him speak to a large group of educators. One thing he said that I hadn’t heard before was, “It’s a feature of English spelling, not a bug.” Let me explain…

Pete started the session by asking teachers to brainstorm “tricky” words, ones that don’t seem to make sense. As in most of his workshops, I’m sure, homophones came up. Several teachers offered there, their, and they’re, and to, too, and two, probably because these words are so frequently misspelled by students, or because we are misguided by the belief that English spelling is determined primarily by “sound” representation. Not true, which Pete masterfully proved by asking the teachers why those words are spelled differently. “Because they have different meanings.” Exactly!

This led to Pete’s explanation of the Homophone Principal and a celebration of the system’s versatility, a recognition of the difficulties that would be caused if we didn’t have a variety of ways to represent the same “sounds” (phonemes). “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” Brilliant, and one of many thought provoking statements from Pete.

Thanks Pete! You’ve been an inspiration for so many years to so many people, not the least of whom are the readers of this blog. Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to write one of your long blog comments (which I LOVE!) and could instead just talk to us all for a really long time?! I hope it won’t be the last time!

Spelling Represents Meaning…

…not sounds, or syllables, or whatever else we were led to believe in our youth. Yes, phonology (what many incorrectly refer to as “sound”) is a conceptual component of English spelling, but the primary, defining component is morphology – the structure and sequencing of MEANING. Has this group of students truly grasped that concept yet? This morning I went with a ‘tried and true’ provocation to find out. I asked them to spell /tu/. See what happened below…

Notice the cognition, the scientific thinking, and the enthusiasm…all inspired by one little word.

The spelling of <two> also offers an excellent opportunity for our newest blog followers to be introduced to the genius of Gina Cooke. When Gina is not commenting on our orthographic investigations, she is busy liberating the world – particularly teachers – from spelling misconceptions and linguistic inaccuracies. Newbees, you MUST read any and all of her posts at LEX.

Gina has teamed up with TED Ed on a few educational videos, each of which has been posted on this blog several times. And now is as good a time as any to post them again!

The first is perfect for those who are now, after watching our scholars hypothesize this morning, curious about words related to the idea of “two-ness.”

This was Gina’s first video. Beautiful.

Mind blown yet? One more for good measure, after which, hopefully, you’ll see the truth.

Real Script and LatDict

Every school year I am presented with a new group of gloriously diverse students, each with his/her own unique experiences and idiosyncrasies. The same can be said for their handwriting. Diverse times 21! And not just in the appearance of the letters they write, but the actual formation of the letters…the pathways they’ve developed over the years to form their numbers and letters. Everyone in this group writes legibly, some more than others, but efficiency is far more varied, as is comfort level. Most students, even the ones who have beautiful “handwriting” (quotes because we actually refer to handwriting as “script”), look uncomfortable when writing, perhaps even in pain. Walk into any classroom where students are writing (or just watch them at home) and you’ll see most hunched over their papers, heads tilted awkwardly, usually white-knuckling a pencil to death (pencil! gasp! wrong tool!), occasionally stopping to shake out their overtired wrists and hands.

It need not be so.

Over the last few weeks I’ve slowly introduced script to the students, Real Script. I’ve actually required them to use a pen when writing, and I’m constantly saying “Feet, elbows” to encourage proper posture. The kids have also heard, “Dance of the pen…” over and over as a reminder of the pleasurable experience writing CAN and SHOULD be.

Yesterday the class was enthusiastic about writing their names, so I showed them a video from Old Grouch’s Real Script resource to introduce Majuscular script. As we viewed and attempted our own versions of the various Majuscular forms, Old Grouch emailed us. We called, he enthusiastically shared his expertise, and we eventually moved on to the introduction of a new online resource, LatDict. For those at home who watched the previous videos about Latin verbs and their principal parts, this is a very useful resource, as is the Latdict video below.

I recorded some of our script session. Also, at the end, in order to get to recess, the kids needed to “spell out” <recess>, indicating their hypotheses about its structure by pausing between potential morphemes. Watch to the end to catch that. (I cut Ritvik off prematurely…he offered <success> as a relative.)

And finally, Old Grouch explains how to use LatDict. Also, at the end, when Noah asked, “How does he know all this stuff?”, Old Grouch provided some reflections on the Latin instruction of his youth. And we were all speaking Latin in the end!

More Latin, More Questions, More Fun

Busy week! In a good way! The students are really learning and playing well together, and we are all busy collaborating on various projects throughout the day. We are reading Freak the Mighty together (one of my all time favorites by Rodman Philbrick), sharing our abilities to predict, infer, empathise with characters, etc. We are exploring our Base Ten number system, as well as learning to become flexible with numbers, strategies, and algorithms when adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing – AND at the same time recognising that math is not just about computation, but also about looking for patterns, making conjectures, asking questions, playing with numbers, and that it (math) can and does happen throughout the day, not simply when the teacher says it’s “math time.” More than half the class has met with either me, Carlo, or Mrs. Dowling to plan iTime projects, and I know a few students have already started exploring these topics at home. Several of our authors are “writing books” as they become familiar with our Book Creator app. Most students have improved their videographer skills, shooting several videos aimed to enhance camera techniques. Communication has been a topic of discussion for our “How we organize ourselves unit,” with an emphasis on how technology has impacted our ability to do so. And finally, as you may have noticed, word investigations and chats with orthographic experts are frequent occurrences in our classroom.

Yesterday we once again had the privilege of welcoming Old Grouch into the classroom to help us recognize Latin influences on English. He guided us through the two video resources you see below (again, that guidance is crucial, not stand-alone videos), and addressed the increasingly precise questions some of the students had. And it is the generation of questions – thoughtful, reasoned questions – that does not happen when spelling and words are presented as things to simply be remembered. Hearing “Every word has a story, every spelling has a reason” is much more motivating and generative than “Memorize these words and be ready for a test on Friday.” 

Some of the questions I’ve heard in the last couple of days:

Sean: “I know about compound words like <homework>, but are there any compound words with two bound bases?”

Lydia: “I see the prefix list…what about suffixes? Because I’m wondering if <-acle> in <receptacle> is the suffix, or if it’s <-ac> + <-le>. I know <ac> is a prefix in words like <accept>…so I’m wondering if it can also be a suffix.” (Lydia has made a matrix for the bound base <cept>…stay tuned for that brilliant representation of her current understanding.)

Thea: As we explored the twin bases <vid(e)/vis(e)> meaning “to see,” Thea was wondering about movies. “In the word <cinema>…why is there no <vid> or <vis> if it’s about seeing?” I simply said “Great question.” She went away and came back minutes later with, “I think <cinema> is Greek because I went onto Etymonline and found kinema is “movement” in Greek. And maybe that’s because the pictures in the movie move…” Ritvik then chimed in with an interesting hypothesis…“Maybe the <vie> in <movie> related to <vide/vise>? Oh…and if you take away the <i> in <movie> it becomes <move>.” Cool hypothesis! Find evidence! Prove it!

Ritvik: I’m wondering about bound base elements like <vide/vise> in words like <provide> and <provision>. I also wonder if <improvise> is related.” Ritvik is on fire at the moment. He already made a blog post about this investigation, and Old Grouch has already responded to it (technical difficulties at the moment…comment is actually in a separate post from Ritvik). In fact, the two of them had their own private Zoom session this morning. Ritvik was sitting in the pod, using my phone to confer with O.G. about assimilating forms (Example – Ritvik can explain why a word like <illogical> has <il-> as a prefix instead of <in->), like it was no big deal. Old friends already!

So many other questions and wonderings happening this week! My only regret, when groups are working independently as opposed to a whole-group investigation, is that I can’t capture all of these questions, all the discussions and debates, on video. I am certain that some of them are of the “I’m lost…what time is lunch?” variety, but I know that most of them include phrases like “I wonder…”, “I think…”, “My hypothesis is…”, and “I have proof.” How cool is that? That’s cognition! That’s science!

The kids were swarming around me at one point, proud of their discoveries and investigations, and because I’ve been recording so much of these sessions, I ran out of space on my phone…in the heat of the moment…right in the middle of the chase…I was devastated. I did record the thinking of Karl, Tova & Emma, Ritvik, and Nida before that happened, however. Tova and Emma actually convinced me that <sport> is related to <port> and the Latin portare – “to carry.” I had never thought of that! And I didn’t believe them. I was certain that there was no connection…before they pleaded their case and swayed my opinion. Again…how cool is that? I obviously didn’t plan for that to happen, but because of orthography, these two scientists gathered evidence, presented and supported their opinion, and changed my mind. They were then wondering if <s> is a prefix in <sport>. Prefix? Single letter base? I didn’t share with them at the time, but I think <sport> is simple, one morpheme, just one of the many modern English derivations of the Latin portare.

Trust me, more to come. This group is incredibly enthusiastic.

And now…for your viewing pleasure.

And more on how Latin words compound and the essential ‘vowel shift.’ Thanks Old Grouch for allowing us to share your helpful resources. I happen to know for a fact, based on recent conversations, that several of our new parents are studiously following along!

Lessons in Latin

Old Grouch is no stranger to veteran viewers of this blog, and new parents are probably starting to realize he is always somehow present in our classroom…despite never physically leaving his beautiful home in the village of Cluis in central France. He is the person who introduced me to orthography, to a love of words, and to genuine scholarship. He’s also our number one fan! (My mother is a close second.)

The latest crop of 5Allen scientists got to meet O.G. yesterday. Inspired by the students’ immediate comfort with and enthusiasm for orthography, as demonstrated in the “Sneaky Old Grouch” post from the weekend, he prepared a lesson on Latin verbs specifically for our viewing (and Gail Venable’s…another dear friend and blog fan…she wanted to meet this new group!). The first video below is what he used throughout the lesson, stopping occasionally to clarify points or answer questions. It is not a ‘stand alone’ resource, so if you watch, know that you may need the assistance of your local 5Allen student who will gladly clarify any questions you may have.

This will be an invaluable resource during our word investigations. After initially learning of ‘principal parts’ last year, and the significance of the infinitive and supine forms, I made this post to share that group’s investigations. I still struggle with the concept, but these students, with their multiple languages, naturally work with and appreciate conjugations (side note: are the words <conjugate> and <jugular> related?).

In the next video you’ll see the aforementioned introduction between our students and O.G. This is not a rare occurrence. He enjoys Zooming in with our class and participating in investigations just as much as we enjoy his company and contributions.

Before that session on Latin verbs, I shared with the students the buzz of interest that had been generated around the world from their first encounter with orthography. A particularly significant buzz came from Pete Bowers (mentioned in an earlier post…orthographer extraordinaire, groovy on the drums, all-around super cool guy, visiting our class soon…). Pete often highlights our students’ investigations on his web site, in his newsletter, and on Matt Berman’s Real Spellers site. In fact, his latest contribution to Real Spellers was all about our students and their thinking. All of this, along with the various emails and blog comments, piqued the interest of even the most (seemingly) reluctant students. “Wait…there are people from all over the world watching us? Learning from us? Uh…that’s…uh…that’s pretty cool.” They actually didn’t need that extra layer of motivation. Before they even knew of their super star status, these students were curious, asking questions, looking for patterns, debating…all very scientific, and all because children are naturally so. As their teacher, I simply need to find ways to maintain that curiosity, and inspire increasingly rich and reasoned questions. and encourage the pursuit of genuine understanding. Stay tuned to see how I do!

More to come tomorrow. The concept of twin base elements really fired up the students today. Some amazing questions from Thea, Sean, Ritvik, and Nida!

Sneaky Old Grouch

For those who actually read our entire “Orthographic and Mathematical Inception” post, and for those who didn’t, I challenge you to also read the comments. They’re actually listed under “replies” just under the title of the post. Hopefully you’ll feel compelled to add your own reply…comment…question. Old Grouch and Pete Bowers are two of our biggest fans, and avid readers of this blog will get to know them well.

Don’t let the Old Grouch moniker fool you. Michel is a dear friend of mine who enjoys following our scholarly pursuits and, perhaps more than anything else, subtly weaving a multitude of orthographic hints in each of his comments. This most recent one was no exception. Can  you find all of his clues? Words related to <inception>?

I challenged the students to find them all. As the school year is still young, I only once and very briefly demonstrated how Etymonline can help us find meaning connections between words – their entries must share the same etymological root. As you’ll see in the long and unedited video below, the kids are just getting used to this type of detective work, but it’s hard to deny the enthusiasm several of them display when ‘spelling instruction’ is presented not as a low-level memorization task but rather an investigation, a hunt for clues, a pursuit of understanding.

Orthographic and Mathematical Inception

A bit of a pompous title, I know. But I went with <inception> because, at the end of this post, dear reader, I want you to analyze that word, to determine its structure and identify its parts, its morphemes, its origin, and of course, other members of its family (words that share the same root).

Still with me? Intrigued rather than terrified by that opening challenge? Read on.

Last week, while talking about fuzzy bunnies, rainbows, and unicorns – among other less interesting topics – we encountered some wonderful and quite common spelling errors.


Excellent! After a quick chat about when and why we use an apostrophe (never for plurals!), we focused on suffixes. A few students provided the correct spelling – <bunnies> – and, while boring (mistakes are much more fun!), many seemed to understand something about “changing a <y> to <i>.” But what about that <-e>? Is it part of an <-es> suffix? Why not just <-s>? An orthographic word sum – (a tool we use to hypothesize word structures) – of <bunny + s> would seem to make sense, but then the odd-looking *<bunnis> is obviously hinting at a convention, a rule that has developed over time, that would prevent such a spelling, even if we don’t know it yet.

We then did what all scientists do when pondering a question – we gathered evidence, in this case, a bank of words. Students happily offered examples that seemed to follow the same pattern – buddies, fuzzies, responsibilities, tries, cries. We noticed that some of those are plurals, like <bunnies>, but some are verbs, like <tries>. Cool. And it this point…we stopped. That’s right. We moved on to something else. The kids were, collectively, done…over it…ready to do something else..and besides, I think we had to go to lunch. And those types of interruptions are OK. They’re actually more than OK. They’re necessary. I want the kids to observe, analyze, compare, and debate, all in an attempt to make their own conclusions, but sometimes they just need to go outside and run around, or read a book, or play with friends…or eat lunch! We will revisit that evidence bank in pursuit of patterns later.

Yesterday the students were provoked by a single statement in math. “It is possible to draw five line segments in such a way that five triangles are formed. Prove it.” Everyone was engaged and busily working and chatting, and eventually a few kids said, “Got it.” And yes, they had. In fact, there were several possible constructions and the kids enjoyed sharing these with me. But then that was it. “I’m done, now what.” No one actually said that, but the sentiment was there. Teacher gives me a question, I answer it, or I don’t, he helps me, or says “Good job”, and that’s the end of math time. Perfect opportunity for the big “Math is not about answering questions; it’s about ASKING questions” speech. Shortly after said speech Edward chimed in with, “I think using five lines I can actually make ten triangles,” followed by a similar claim from Thea, both starting with the beautiful words, “I think…”

“WHOA!” I screamed. Children literally jumped in the air, frightened by their loud teacher being louder than normal. “Everyone,” I continued, “Edward and Thea are being mathematicians. They aren’t simply answering my question and doing what I told them to do…they’re asking their own questions. In fact, they each just made a conjecture.” We then talked about what that means and how everyone is capable of “throwing out” such claims, and then other students, realizing that asking questions makes Mr. Allen exceedingly happy, joined in, offering conjectures and attempting to prove them. What if I only draw three lines? What about four? Is there a pattern? How will we know if we have “seen” all the possible triangles? Woo hoo! That’s math!

At some point later that day I asked the kids to spell <conjecture>. “Uh…Mr. Allen…it’s on the board.” Right, they don’t know what I mean by “spelling out” words yet. I explained that the word was complex, that it consisted of different parts called morphemes, and that by spelling it out, pausing between “parts” (the morphemes), I could see what we needed to talk about next. Several hypotheses were offered.

con + jec + ture (Ritvik explained that he thought this because of “breaking it into syllables.”)

con + ject + ure (Alice)

con + jec + t + ure (Emma)

I explained that when hypothesizing a word sum, the orthographer must offer examples of the various morphemes in other words. So, in this case, can we find <-ure> as a suffix in another word? Yes…<failure> and <departure>. And what is the common string of letters in the suffix for both of those words? Yes, <-ure>, not <-ture>. Similarly, <con-> is a common prefix found in words like <conclude> and <construct>. So that leaves <ject>, and since the other elements are affixes, and since every word cannot consist of only affixes, the remaining morpheme must be the base. In this case, it’s what linguists call a “bound base element”, a base that does not function as a word on its own…it must “bind” with other elements to do that.

What does <ject> mean? What other words share that base? Good time to introduce some of our online scientific tools. The first, Neil Ramsden’s brilliant Word Searcher. By entering <ject> into the search field, we can see lots of words that share that letter string j-e-c-t, 74 to be exact. But that doesn’t mean all 74 share a common root. Further investigation required! We can take any of those words, <adjective> for example (that jumped out at us!), and determine if they are part of the word family by searching on Etymonline.

So let’s start with <conjecture>.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.45.06


I gave a brief introduction of Etymonline to the students, and we then focused on the Latin root iacere – “to throw.” If the other words, like adjective, share that root, then they are in the same etymological family. Let’s see…

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.48.51


Yep…there it is. The connotation of an adjective is a word that is “thrown to” or “placed near” a noun to help describe it. Cool. That means we can include the word <adjective> as we use another of our tools, the Mini Matrix Maker, to help organise the various related words we’ve discovered, and to demonstrate their meaning connection. The students and I have made a couple of these on the white board in recent days, but this was their first exposure to the handy electronic version. This is what we came up with.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 21.01.26


There are other <ject> words, but matrices do not need to be exhaustive. They simply help us visualise the morphological structure of words, and they also reinforce what an actual “word family” is…nothing to do with rhyming!

OK, so how about <inception>? I bet you already have a hypothesis, and if it conflicts with your belief that <-tion> is a suffix, I urge you to follow your instincts. (Because it isn’t!)

New parents, consider this your first lesson in orthography. Congratulations if you made it this far! If you’re intrigued, which I hope you are, click on the Language/Spelling/Word Study category over to the right. LOTS of posts from past investigations.


Two More Word Presentations

The first, from Craig, was inspired by some of Ann Whiting’s students who mimicked the “In Plain English” format while presenting their own discoveries. As he relays the path of his investigation, Craig refers to a conversation with me. It was interesting to see how he interpreted our discussion, and the video indicates a few other areas for Craig and I to explore.

Michael loves stop-motion videos, and this latest effort doesn’t disappoint.

As I watched, I was certain that <pre-> must be a prefix in the word <present>, and it very well may be. But, inspired by Michael’s video to investigate and find evidence of the complexity of <present>, I think I figured out why he considered it simple (no affixes) – the Etymonline entries for the verb and noun forms. However, I followed the link to the adj. <present> and found this.


OK…evidence of a <pre-> prefix. However, this left me with further questions about the structure. I’m wondering why/how the Latin esse evolved into Modern English <sent>. And now that I write that sentence, and investigate further (type in ‘esse’ to Etymonline), I’m wondering about a possible single letter base element <s>, meaning “to be.”

<pre + s + ent>         <pre + s + ence>           <es + s + ence>

Just throwing it out there, in real time, as I type, before I’ve done any significant investigation. Partly to see if anyone has an opinion, but mostly to highlight the power of these word investigations. Any of the students who engage in this type of word inquiry eventually share their discoveries and hypotheses with me, and I, in turn, eventually exhaust my limited knowledge, and we get stuck together. That’s the sweet spot! Now the students get to join me in genuine inquiry, and see that their work has surpassed their teacher’s knowledge. That’s usually a powerful motivator for the students.

More Orthographic Presentations

Lawrence, Ben, and Connor investigated <rotation>, and I’m glad they did. I had never made the connection between rotating and ‘rote‘ learning. And I have a new understanding of the word rotund. Thanks, guys!

A couple of groups investigated the word <wonder>. Holly’s presentation style was much different than Sydney, Sophie, and Maya’s, but both left me wondering, which is a good thing!

Seth, Juan, and LohithSai reflected on their movie trailer (posted yesterday) this morning and realized that it is too repetitive…excessive shots of iPads and not enough shots of the actual scientists. Here is their complete investigation of <extraordinary>.

Recent Word Investigations

Lots of word inquiries happening these days, along with a variety of presentation methods. More to come soon!


A movie trailer of what’s to come in Seth, LohithSai, and Juan’s presentation:

Jamie and Noah:

Along with their extensive matrix!