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
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
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.


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).


<n.a.t. + ion>

/ˈn..ʃ + ən /



<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!