7 Things I Learned from Ursula Nordstrom

The librarian at the public library in the Bronx used to light a candle before reading aloud to the children gathered before her, highlighted her reverence for time spent reading together.  As a classroom teacher and a reading specialist, I wasn’t able to light candles before I read to my students but I carried that reverence inside me.  As any parent knows, there is magic in reading a book aloud to a child.  

As I read, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marks), I was stunned that one editor was responsible for nurturing so many incredible books and authors: The Carrot Seed, Harold and the Purple Crayon, May I Bring a Friend, Millions of Cats, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Chicken Soup with Rice, Danny and the Dinosaur, Where the Wild Things Are, A Baby Sister for Frances, Ben’s Trumpet, The Important Book, The Snowy Day, Goodnight, Moon, Runaway Bunny, Stevie (the author later wrote Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters), Moon Jumpers, A Hole is to Dig, Poky Little Puppy, Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, William’s Doll, Stuart Little…the list could go on and on.  As the famed editor and director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, Ursula Nordstrom changed the face of children’s literature with her vision.

It was pure joy to read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters as she joked, consoled, inspired, badgered, encouraged but, most of all, respected her authors and illustrators.  Read this book if you love children’s books or if you are a writer or illustrator.  

Here are 7 things I learned from Ursula Nordstrom:

  1. Respect Your Audience

“I am a former child and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” 

                                                           Ursula Nordstrom

Not only did Ursula Nordstrom deeply respect the authors, she respected the children for whom the books were being created.  In letter after letter, Nordstrom holds the bar high for her writers.  She recognized that children would welcome books that dealt with the emotions and situations reflected in their own lives, whether it was a first period, a hole in the ground or more mature situations.  She believed that children responded best to strong characters, funny names and lots of action.

  1.  Believe You Can Create Great Art

            When Maurice Sendak lacked confidence or Ruth Knauss was misunderstood by  

             adults, Nordstom emphasized the singularity of artistic vision.  To read her 

             letters is to feel her bedrock belief in her authors and illustrator.  She only asks,    

             sometimes with great humor, that they do the work and do it to the high standards 

             that she believed that they had set for themselves.

  1. Dwell in Uncertainty when Giving Feedback to Others

When turning down a manuscript, Nordstrom always maintained a sense of humility   which was evidenced by her sharing her uncertainty about the accuracy of her judgement when turning someone down.

  1. Navigate Negative Feedback

There were a few times when an artist (who disagreed with Ursula Nordstrom’s feedback) left her publishing house.  As a reader, I was screaming in my head, “Don’t go!  Listen to Ursula!.”  Of course, it is their write to publish with whomever they wish but it probably is a good rule of thumb to develop some ability to navigate negative feedback, such as by not reacting in the moment and giving yourself plenty time to contemplate the feedback dispassionately.  Also, what’s the harm of creating a draft with the changes and then deciding which one works?  

  1. Write.

            Write.  Write.  Write.  Many of her letters are just Ursula Nordstrom begging authors to  

             write and/or turn in manuscripts.  She beseeches her authors to do the work to the

             exclusion of anyone and everything else, with great humor throughout. 

  1.  Be of Good Cheer

Through crushing disappointments and losses, Nordstrom was able to keep her equanimity and sense of humor.  To see her generous spirit unfold through these letters was a great gift.

  1.  Life is Short

Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon) and Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy) are two authors that died too young.  Just a reminder that our time here is not unlimited.

I loved this book so much that I just hated when it was over.  I have so many questions and wish that Ursula Nordstrom was still among us but, lucky for all of us, her legend lives on.

The Power of “Poem of the Week”

What is it?

“Poem of the Week” is an activity for home or school. All you need to do is select a poem and post it in an easily seen location, such as the chalkboard or refrigerator. Read the poem together. You can read the poem chorally, take turns reading a line or stanza or “echo read” (the adult reads a line and the child repeats the same line).

Why read a daily poem?

Reading poetry aloud every day builds poetry appreciation, fluency and a deeper understanding of the rhymes and rhythms of language.

How do I do it?

First: Select a poem that you enjoy and write the poem out on chart paper. There is something very tactile about writing the poem out in enlarged text that adds to the poetry experience while making the poem more visible. If that is too time-consuming, just mark your poem with a bookmark.

Second: Take time every day to read the poem together or take turns reading a line. For more difficult poems, “echo” read with the adult reading a line and the child reading the same line.

Third: Keep the emphasis on fun but do have conversation about what you and your child notice about the meaning, words and/or craft of the poem. Later in the week, you may want to talk about rhyming or favorite words. As the student becomes proficient at reading the poem, invite your child to read the poem to family members outside the household. (I would have students collect signatures from every person to whom they read aloud, each time they read, on the back of a copy of the poem.)

Fourth: Celebrate the final reading at the end of the week by making an audio or video recording. Invite your child to help stage the final reading with props or costumes.

Happy Reading! I would recommend starting “Poem of the Week” project with “School Daze Rap” from Carol Diggory Shields, Lunch Money and Other Poems about School, but there are so many wonderful poems! Here are some of my current favorite collections for selecting a “Poem for the Week.”

Carol Diggory Shields, Lunch Money and Other Poems About School

Nancy Larrick (editor), Piping Down the Valleys Wild

Jack Prelutsky (editor) and Arnold Lobel (illustrator), The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Sylvia Vardell & Janet Wong and Franzi Paetzold (illustrator), Hop to it: Poems to Get You Moving

Alex Wharton and Kathy Riddell (illustrator), Daydreams and Jellybeans

These are so many beautiful poems and sharing the beauty with your students and children create beautiful memories. I have recently discovered the poetry of Alex Wharton and I just think any child would love a poem that starts like this (from “Midnight Wish”): “I’m a moon,/and I shine for you,”

May you find many poems together.

Learning about Articulation

“The favored explanation is that teaching beginners to monitor mouth positions served to activate the articulatory features of phonemes in words as students practiced reading them. This strengthened phonemes’ connection to graphemes and better secured spellings in memory for reading the words. Findings suggest the value of teaching beginners to monitor mouth positions and sounds during phonemic segmentation instruction.”

From Linnea Ehri’s “The Science of Learning to Read Words: A Case for Systematic Phonics Instruction (Reading Research Quarterly, 30 August 2020)

Recent research has indicated that helping students understand the correspondence between phonemes, including how they are physically articulated in the mouth, to graphemes helps with unitization, the process by which all identities of a word (spelling, meaning, pronunciation) are immediately accessed from memory.

In order to deepen my understanding of articulation and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), I have been taking a class called “Fun with Phonetics” with Patti Bottino-Bravo, MS, CCC-SLP. I highly recommend this class! I am deepening my understanding of articulation, phonetics, the vowel quadrilateral and the International Phonetic Alphabet. Patti is a wonderful teacher and the information is very well-organized and expertly paced. I had hoped to be able to quickly transcribe speech into the International Phonetic Alphabet and, thanks to this class, I am well on my way.

Going forward, I wanted a reference where I can quickly refresh my understanding about the articulation of targeted phonemes as we map phonemes to graphemes. I created a Google Slides deck that explains where particular phonemes are produced and also provides a link to a live articulation (Sounds of Speech, The University of Iowa Research Foundation. NB: This website is slated to end in 2020 and will be replaced with an application. ). It would be the live articulation, not the slides, that I may share during the process of helping students “feel” the phonemes by placing their hand on their cheek or in front of their mouth as they say a word.

Creating the slides helped deepen my understanding of Structured Word Inquiry, along with phonetics. I made so many new connections as I explored the meaning, relatives, structure and phonology of this new vocabulary. The process of creating the slides emphasized once again how the SWI process supports understanding.

Is there some new vocabulary you would like to learn? I think my next exploration will be about the etymology of flower names as I was so fascinated by the etymology of <dandelion> and <nasturtium>; two flowers that surfaced during this phonetics vocabulary inquiry. Feel free to create your own slides! You can share your creations or contact me with any questions at literacystudio@mac.com.

Start with “Hatchet” and See What Happens!

One way to explore words using “Structured Word Inquiry” is to ask students to brainstorm possible relatives of a word to be investigated. For example, after reading “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen, students may be interested in investigating the word <hatchet.>

Before the investigation, students could be asked to brainstorm a list of words related to <hatchet> and give a meaningful reason why they think that <hatchet> and the word they volunteered, (say <hatch>) are related.  Any meaningful connection is accepted and put on our

                            “Brainstormed List of Words Related to <hatchet>”

                            Hatched, hatch, “down the hatch”, hatched

Then, because we are word scientists, we test this hypothesis through Structured Word Inquiry.  After our investigation, we would find out that hatchet (an axe) is in the same family as hatch (the verb that means “draw cut lines on your paper” and “hash browns” but not related to the family of hatch(as in a ship’s opening) or hatch (as in emerge from an egg, This family contains the related <hatchback>).

I would recommend investigating one word family per day.  Here is a sample of some possible results:

Our <Hatchet> Structured Word Investigations

    Hatchet (Noun) an axe; a tool that cuts.        Hatch (Noun)As in opening, as in a ship’s deck.      Hatch (Verb)Emerge from an egg    Hashish (Noun)Extract of the cannabis plant
From Old French hachete (small pick-axe)From Old Englishhaec (fence, gating, grate)From Old English heccan (come forth from an egg or cause to come forth from an egg)From Arabic hashish (powdered hemp)
Related WordsRelated WordsRelated WordsRelated Words
Hatchet
Hatch (Verb)-sense of cutting lines
Hash-sense of cut up hash-browned potatoes“Hash it out” -sense of talking something out.
Hatch“Down the hatch”-drink something downHatch,hatched,hatching,hatchery,
Hatchback; Type of trunk opening
assassin,
assassinate(same root as hashish but evolved as a nickname for a group in the Middle Ages during the Crusades)

Structured Word Inquiry: Using Images to Inspire Investigations

 As a huge fan of Ron Ritchart’s “Making Thinking Visible” critical thinking framework, I was wondering if there was a way to use images to inspire word investigations. I was thinking that I would just start by showing students this image without any context and use a “See/Think/Wonder” Thinking Routine.

 

Patrick A. Mackie, The Utah Monolith: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Utah_Monolith.jpg

After completing the “See/Think/Wonder” routine, we would read and discuss the following article: https://time.com/5916286/utah-monolith-disappears/

On a subsequent lesson, the word <monolith> could be selected as a word to investigate. If students are proficient at SWI, they may break into groups to investigate a word of their choosing or the teacher may decide to do a whole-class investigation.

It is helpful to do the investigation in advance but it is really important to meet the students where they are. For example, I had previously thought that mono- was a prefix but my latest thinking is that <mon> is a base with a connecting vowel <o>. Thanks to an extremely informative video in the Real Spelling Toolbox that featured word study on <mono>, I have revised my thinking. As long as students can show evidence for their thinking, it is important to respect the journey of the learner. I have been walking this path for almost three years and every day brings a new gleaning. Allow students their own gleanings and adopt a questioning stance as they conduct their own scientific word investigations.

Another interesting reason to do a matrix before instruction is that it can clarify my own understandings. For example, I became really stuck on the analysis of <monotheist> on the <mon> matrix. I analyzed <monotheist> as mon+o+the+ist as mon+o+the/+ist->*monothist because of the suffixing pattern for replacing the single, silent <e> until I realized that the final <e> in atheist is NOT silent so that the suffix is just added. To be sure, the word <monotheist> would most likely not be brainstormed by students when asked for words in the <mon> (meaning “single”) family but I felt like it was an important renewed understanding, nevertheless.

I think that connecting images from current events and word investigations holds a lot of promise and I look forward to doing some future investigations. Feel free to contact me at literacystudio@mac.com if you have any questions.

Bibliography:

Patrick A. Mackie, The Utah Monolith: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Utah_Monolith.jpg

Do a See/Think/Wonder Activity: https://pz.harvard.edu/resources/see-think-wonder

Read this “Time” article with your students: https://time.com/5916286/utah-monolith-disappears/

Associated Press. (2020, November 30). Mysterious monolith disappears from Utah desert 10 days after it sparked international intrigue. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5916286/utah-monolith-disappears/We

Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010)

Real Spelling Online Toolbox https://www.tbox2.online

Accessed 12/4/20

Who knew “transition”, “sedition” and “ambition” were related?

I started to write a blog post about all the ways that Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) supported orthographic mapping but I was reading the NYT and started to wonder about the word “transition.” So, using the 4 questions of SWI to guide my investigation, I discovered so many interesting things! First, that the <it> in <transition> is derived from the Latin ire meaning “to go.” <It> is the base of a whole family of words with a sense of “going”: transition (going from one place to another), exit (going out), obituary (what they write about you when you finally go), transitory (not going on forever), initiate, and initial (go first).

Two cousins of “transition” are “sedition” (going apart from the state) and “ambition.” “Ambition” historically meant “going around canvassing votes” and evolved to figuratively meant “seeking position or honor” (John Ayto).

Working through a Structured Word Inquiry allows for deep understandings motivated by the student’s own questions. I experienced a real sense of excitement when I realized that <it> was the base of <transition> because even though I had seen that word many times, it had not occurred to me to think about the structure of this word before. It was only when, as part of the SWI inquiry, that I was asked to explore the structure of “transition” using lexical word sums (transition->trans+it+ion), that the affixes (trans-; -ion) and bound base (<it>) became clear.

After exploring the etymology, I looked for related words using Etymology Online and the Word Searcher. Here were some words that I thought might be related, like <remit> but when I searched for the deepest root of the word, it was not the Latin ire. Only words that share the same base <it>, the same historical root and the same meaning are members of the immediate family. After some trial and error, I was able to connect this <it> base with the meaning of “go” to other words in the family that shared the same base and meaning. As part of the investigation, I realized that “sedition” and “ambition” were in the same family deriving from the historical Latin root but I could not say that they shared a base because I could not prove <amb> and <sed> were prefixes. I could find evidence of those word strings being prefixes historically (but not present-day) so I could not include them on my matrix. <Sedition> and <ambition> were more like cousins to <transition> than siblings but I did include them in my circle below to show that they are in the ire “go” extended family.

After constructing the matrix, I decided to sort the words by function: noun, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. I am investigating how stress impacts parts of speech and I wanted to explore the hypothesis that nouns, adjectives and adverbs receive the primary stress on the first syllable while verbs receive primary stress on the second syllable. It didn’t seem applicable in this investigation but these words would be interesting to share as examples of words that can be either nouns or verbs, depending on context.

The 4th question of Structured Word Inquiry is, “What are the graphemes that focus coherently here?” and I notice that all is as expected except that the <t> shifts pronunciation. It can be either /t/ or /ʃ/ when the <t> is in the medial position in words. In the final position in a word, the <t> is always <t>. It helps students to be aware of the realities of grapheme/phoneme correspondences-namely, that graphemes (letters or letter strings) can represent one or more phonemes. Knowing that <t> may represent a different phoneme when appearing in the medial position of words in this family than at the end is helpful information.

In the Structured Word Inquiry approach, students are encouraged to “spell it out” when they come to an unknown word instead of “sound it out.” This is because the first job of our (morphophonemic) spelling system is to represent meaning (as opposed to sound) and “spelling a word out” allows a student a chance to call their attention to the meaningful units in a word (bases, affixes). Not being able to immediately identify a word is a sign that the word has not been successfully mapped into long term memory so having the student “spell-it-out” instead of “sound-it out” reduces the potential embarrassment of the situation (Bowers, 2020, SWI Class.) Spelling out loud has a much lower cognitive load than “sounding it out” and I have noticed that it is a very successful strategy for instruction. If child spells out the word and doesn’t spontaneously identify the word, the teacher can ask, “Do you see a base that you know? An affix?” which a teacher can quickly point out while making a point to explore the word family and/or do a word sum for the target word at the earliest opportunity.

It is important to keep track of words a students do not identify immediately and correctly because that is a sign that the student has not mapped or bonded the graphemes, the phonemes and the meaning into long-term memory.

Investigating words using a Structured Word Inquiry approach depends on an inter-relationship of meaning, phonology and etymology. It shows students that spelling actually makes sense and allows for deep understanding of word meanings, structures and phonology. It is also a process that allows students to take ownership of their own learning. Like any inquiry process, it involves a lot of not knowing and resilience but results in such joy when understanding emerges. As Pete Bowers has frequently said, “Nothing motivates like understanding!” What word do you or your students want to understand or investigate today?

Why is “nation” pronounced differently than “national”?

One of the guiding principles of our English orthography system is that spelling remain consistent while pronunciations may shift across word families. So, when my friend, Q., asked, as we walked across the bridge formerly known as the Tappan Zee, “Why are “nation” and “national” pronounced differently?”, I knew that our spelling system is optimized for meaning not pronunciation. So, even when we have a question to explore in Structured Word Inquiry related to pronunciation (Question 4), it is always recommended to start any inquiry by discussing the meaning. (Question 1)

  1. What is the meaning?

“Nation” generally means a people within a border that are connected by a government while <national> refers to the status of belonging to a particular nation.

2. What are the etymological and morphological relatives?

After consulting Etymology Online and discovering that the historical root of <nation> and <national> is the Latin natal or nasci with the sense of “born.” “Nation” has the etymological sense of “that which has been born” or “breed” The notion of a “common ancestry” has been overtaken by the idea of <nation> as people being born within organized political boundaries. <National> emerged in the 17th century. (Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto)

Some morphological relatives (words that share a base and meaning) are nation, nationality, native, natural, naturalize and naturalization. All share the bound base <nate> and have a sense of “born.” If interested, a search can be made for other words in the <nate> family by using Word Searcher or Etymology Online. A word can be included if it shares the same base and meaning. Only words where students understand the meaning should be included.

3. What is the structure?

A lexical analytic word sum for <nation> and <national>:

nation -> nate/ + ion

national -> nate/ + ion+ al

A synthetic word sum for <nation> and <national>:

nate/ + ion -> nation

nate/+ ion + al -> national

The / after <nate> refers to the replacement of the <e> because of the vowel suffix.

Another way to look at structure is to create a lexical matrix which analyzes words into morphemes (bases, affixes (prefixes, suffixes). Here is a <nate> matrix from the RealSpelling Toolkit: (This is a very complete matrix. Remember, a matrix does not need to represent all possible words. For classroom use, I would only include words on a matrix that the students or I had volunteered during the class discussion, making certain that the meaning is understood.)

Now, for the fourth question:

4. How do the graphemes map to the phonemes?

In English, a phoneme (the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another) is represented by a grapheme (a written letter or letter string).

<nation>

<n.a.t. + ion>

/ˈn..ʃ + ən /

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

<national>

<n.a.t. + ion + al>

/ˈn.æ.ʃ + ən + əl/

Now, the graphemes are represented by angle brackets <> while the phonemes are represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet within the slashes //.

We notice that the only pronunciation difference between “nation” and “national” is the initial vowel sound. In <nation> the // phoneme is represented by the grapheme <a> and in <national>, the /æ/ phoneme (short a) is represented by the grapheme <a>. We could represent this fact to children as follows (although this is not a complete list of the phonemes represented by <a>:

We know that the spelling will remain consistent throughout a word family and we see that consistency in the spelling of “nation” and “national.” This emphasizes the concept that the primary job of spelling is to represent meaning not pronunciation. We can see and hear that while the spelling remains consistent between these two words, the vowel pronunciation shifts from long to short. Why? I am not really sure but perhaps it was for ease of pronunciation as it seems more of a tongue twister to say <national> with a short sound than a long sound.

It is also noted that both words retain the primary stress on the first syllable. It is interesting to know that nouns, verbs and adjectives generally have the stress on the first syllable while verbs have the primary stress on the second syllable. (Vowels are usually reduced and represented by the schwa sound in unstressed syllables.)

See (or hear) for yourself with some words in the <nate> family:

So, at this point in the inquiry, I am not absolutely sure why <nation> and <national> are pronounced differently but I have made a reasonable hypothesis (ease of vocalization) and that will stand as I await further information.

What do you think? Do you have another hypothesis about why <nation> and <national> are pronounced differently? Thank you so much to Q. for this interesting question. I can’t wait to go for another bridge walk and talk about words!

SWI Inquiry: Spelling “Hear” vs “Heard”

My friend, Q., had a question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?” Hmm. I don’t know why! What an interesting question, Q. !!! What we do know is that “heard” is the past of “hear” and we know that it is not spelled hear + ed-> *heared.

What is the reasoning behind the spelling of <heard>?

First, let’s look at both words:

hear

heard

We note that although <hear> appears in both words, there is a stem vowel shift as we say the words aloud: “hear”/”heard” although they both contain the letter strings <hear>; the words are pronounced differently.

Might this signal that these words come from Old English? I know from my class with Rebecca Loveless that there are Old English-derived strong (showing an action or state of being or feeling) verbs that mark the past tense with a stem vowel shift, such as “eat/ate”; “run/ran”; “sing/sang” and “”grow/grew.”

I notice that, unlike the words above, “hear” and “heard” have a vowel shift but not a letter string or grapheme shift. Hmmm. There is another example of am Old English-derived strong verb that has a vowel sound shift without a letter string or grapheme shift:

Present tense: “read”/Past tense: “read”

So, I ponder what, if anything does the “hear/heard” and “read/read” pairings have in common? They are all homophones: read/reed; read/red; hear/here; heard/herd. So, it would have been important for the scribes long ago to follow the homophone principle: “where possible, words that are pronounced the same, but are unrelated, will have different spellings to mark the differences in meaning.”

So, it would have been important to have graphemes in <heard> that would signal the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>.

Now, with those thoughts in mind, I will investigate <heard> and <hear> using the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) to determine if any other new understandings come to light:

So, after considering all my current understandings, my answer to Q.’s question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?”, my hypothesis is that <heard>, as an Old English-derived strong verb, is spelled that way in order to show the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>. I will continue to refine my hypothesis as I learn. Thank you, Q., for a very thought-provoking question!

Update: I wasn’t feeling confident about my analysis about why <heard> is spelled that way so I continued to do research. I came across Dr. Peter Bowers’ wonderful exploration of <say> and <said> here. His analysis taught me something new: <-d> is a non-productive suffix ( a suffix that is not currently being used to generate new words). In his etymological investigation, <saith> was historically replaced by <say> and he is aware of the OE suffix -th (-th, according to Gina Cooke, is a verbal inflection that has been replaced by the <-s> in says. It has an <-eth> variant, like in <prayeth>) so

saith-> sai + th

If <sai> is an earlier version of <say> and <-d> is an earlier, now non-productive, suffix then

sai + d-> said

Dr. Bowers concludes, “our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <say> and <said> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root secgan. “

That makes me update my hypothesis that <heard> is spelled that way as a result of <hear> + the now unproductive -d suffix hence

hear + d->heard

Based on my updated hypothesis and my current understanding, our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <hear> and <heard> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root heran.

Thank you, Dr. Bowers, for your illuminative analysis of <said> and for all your scholarship related to spelling and Structured Word Inquiry.

Note from Real Spellers Toolkit (Theme 2D):

  • We know that the homophones < hear > and < here > have different meanings because they are spelled differently. The one that is to do with listening shares a spelling with < ear > because that’s what we listen with.

The other word is the one to do with place: < here >. It shares a spelling with the other words that are clearly about place: < there > and < where >, even though the pronunciation is different.

References

Peter Bowers, Structured Word Inquiry

Rebecca Loveless

Etymology Online

The Noun Project

Neil Ramsden’s Mini-Matrix Maker

Real Spellers Forum and Toolbox

Gina Cooke and Lex Exchange

Oxford Dictionary

Embedding “Structured Word Inquiry” Within a Reading Lesson

After a text has been presented and discussed, ask students to select a word that interests them from a text.  Guide students through the following 4 questions using the Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) Framework.  (Note: This does not have to be explored during one sitting.)

  1. Meaning?
  2. Relatives? (Etymology)
  3. Structure?  (Morphology)
  4. Pronunciation? (Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence)

Sample Text:

“Sorry, But It Was Beautiful” by Andrew Vecchione (6th Grade Student of Kenneth Koch)

This is just to say

Sorry I took your money

And burned it.

But it looked like the world falling apart 

When it crackled and burned.

So I think it was worth it.

After all

You can’t see the world fall apart every day.

See the following SWI Thinksheet for a guided exploration of the student-selected word, “crackle“:

SWI ThinkSheet:

One of the notable understandings for this investigation is that the suffix <-le>” is represented by the grapheme<l>marker <e> and the phonemes /ə/ and /l/.

After the exploration, ask students for their lingering questions or provide extension activities for further study. In this case, an exploration of the -le suffix in the Oxford Dictionary showed that one meaning of this suffix is “a repetitive action.” As one collects words with the -le suffix, it was noted that many of those words refer to repetitive sounds. This resulted in a sort of the words with an -le suffix (or ending, as we determined some of the words had <le> as part of the base, not as part of the suffix) into two groups: -le words that referred to repetitive sounds and those that did not.

As a result of this investigation, there was heightened understanding of the -le suffix and future investigations to explore the -le suffix in English as it seems to have evolved (Latin -el?) or be connected to the -el suffix.

From Etymology Online, entry for -el:

-el (3)

derivational suffix, also -le, used mostly with verbs but originally also with nouns, “often denoting diminutive, repetitive, or intensive actions or events” [The Middle English Compendium], from Old English. Compare brastlian alongside berstan (see burst); nestlian (see nestle) alongside nistan). It is likely also in wrestletrampledragglestruggletwinkle, also noddle “to make frequent nods” (1733). New formations in Middle English might be native formations (jostle from joust) with this or borrowings from Dutch.

I am wondering, for example, if a word sum for <prattle> (from the Middle Dutch praten, “to chatter“) which would be expected to be prattle-> prat+le-> *pratle except that is not correct. The “Etymology Online” site notes in the entry for -el that in Modern English the -el suffix is represented by -el. Note that prat(t)+el->*prattel would explain the doubling but is not the correct spelling. At this point I will just consider <prattle> a base based on my current understanding but I will research the -el/-le connection. (As I feel the pronunciation of the -le suffix, I realize that the first phoneme I hear is the schwa, which is a vowel. Is there any doubling rule that takes into account a suffix that starts with a vowel sound even though the suffix does not start with a vowel?) (Update: After examining the etymology of the words below here, I became aware of a class of verbs called frequentatives with in English marks its verbs with an -le or -er ending and refers to words that show some sort of small or intense repeated action. Read here and here and here. My latest understanding says that for a verb to be frequentative, it must be derived from another word with the addition of the suffix. That doesn’t explain why a word like <prattle> which is most likely frequentative and arising from <prate> does not follow the rules for doubling. More to ponder and explore!)(Update #2: I just saw this on Gina Cooke’s site:

“Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.”

Based on my new understanding of <le> as a vestigial suffix that functions as a vowel suffix, we can use that information to understand how many of the words were historically built.

Embedding Structured Word Inquiry within a reading lesson offers many opportunities for generative learning. Using the basic framework of Structured Word Inquiry is appropriate for whole class instruction with follow-up activities that can be designed to address individual needs. After a SWI lesson, some students may use a matrix to write word sums while another student may illustrate the meaning of words in the word family (crackle, firecracker, cracked) while still another may do further research on words with -le in the suffix or the base.

Most of all, Structured Word Inquiry allows for a joyous exploration of understanding how our spelling system actually works. An educator does not have to have perfect understanding of the spelling system to embark on the journey, just an openness to learning as you (and your students) go along. Let your questions guide your learning within a true inquiry experience. I encourage you to conduct your own inquiries as part of your reading lessons. Feel free to email me at movoelkel@me.com if you have any questions.

Update 12/5/20: After a careful study of the Real Spelling Toolbox (Kit 4; Theme J), my latest understanding is that there is NOT an <le> suffix, although it may seem to act as a suffix in some words like <crackle>. There was a historic -el suffix and we see the vestiges in word but in present-day English, there is too much variability for it to be considered a suffix. Real Spelling describes the present day final syllabic <le> as an “element-forming ‘particle’ that has combined with a base or root at some point in history to form a new and separate Modern English base. One of its commoner functions was that of a ‘frequentative verb-forming particle.’ It formed words denoting continuous or repeated action. Sometimes we can recognize the stem (wrestle, sparkle, trample, dazzle). Often, though, with these ‘frequentative verbs, the stem has no relatives that we now know of (giggle, fiddle, ogle, dawdle, bubble).” I am so very grateful for the scholarship of Real Spelling because the Real Spelling description continues to describe the historical connections that impact our present-day words. At this point, it makes sense to me to not consider <le> a suffix so that means I should redo my matrix. I am also reconsidering if the phoneme for <le> should be represented as /l/ or /(ə)l/ or what Michel of Real Spelling calls the “dark” <l>. This will be a question for my “Fun with Phonetics” instructor, Patti Bravo-Bottino!

My updated matrix:

For further information:

Dr. Peter Bowers: http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Home.html

Mary Beth Stevens: https://mbsteven.edublogs.org

Rebecca Loveless: https://rebeccaloveless.com

Gina Cooke: LEX

Noted from Real Spellers Toolbox:

-Screenshot from Real Spellers Toolbox (Theme 1D, “Final <e> that is not single” <coffee>)