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?


I'm a Literacy Specialist with over twenty years of classroom, staff development and family event experiences.

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