In my classes the other day I decided to do a bit of review after the Thanksgiving break, starting with terminology. I put a bunch of what the kids like to call "word words" up on the screen one at a time for them to explain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, in the first session one of the students said that <-graphy> meant the study of something. They got it sorted out, but for some reason I carried that over into the next two sessions and repeated the mistake: <-graphy> means "the study of." This time, perhaps because teacher said it, there was no correction.

Later that day, as I thought back over the class, I realized what I had done. So I sent out this email to the entire grade of 50 children:

Dear 5th Graders,

I got very mixed up today, and told you something that was completely wrong. I wonder if any of you noticed it.

I'll give you a hint -- it had to do with the word "orthography." One of you was looking it up in the dictionary, so maybe you noticed and were too polite to say anything?

A free prize from my treasure box for the first person who correctly lets me know what my mistake was!


I should explain that the Treasure Box is not a big deal -- it contains seashells and polished stones that I collect at the beach near my home.

Over the next 18 hours (I sent out the email at 7:30 pm and got responses until about 11 pm, then they picked up again the next morning at 7 am and continued throughout the day) I got dozens of responses, none of them correct, but all of them containing a lot more thinking about the term orthography than they had shown in class:

Orthography means the study of how words are spelled and is also a method of representing the sounds of a written language.

Orthography is the standardized way of using one writing system, NOT the way that writing is put down on paper. However, what you described in class was related to orthography in that spelling, punctuation, hyphenation, word breaks and emphasis are all parts of orthography.

You told us it was the study of words, it is a method of representing the sounds of a language by written or printed symbols. like IPA!

This is what I got from the dictionary: The art of writing words with the proper letters, according to accepted usage; correct spelling.

The orthography of a language is a system for writing the language.

Orthography means the study of spelling and combining letters to form words and represent their sounds.

I think the mistake was that you said that orthography had to do with meaning, but instead orthography means the conventional spelling system of a language or the study of spelling and how letters combine to make words.

There was lots more like this, but you get the idea. Finally, one student figured it out: "<-graphy> means writing. I'm pretty sure you said otherwise."

The interesting part of this, of course, was how excited and motivated they were by my mistake. Voluntarily working on it until 11 at night. And at 7 in the morning. Looking it up on dictionaries and online. After the right answer, I sent out this email to the group:

Dear Fifth Graders,

Thanks to all those who submitted answers to the question "What did Matt mess up this time?"

The correct correction just came in -- I said that <-graphy> meant "study of." It doesn't -- I mixed it up with <-ology>.

Now they are all emailing me to find out who got the answer (she hasn't given me permission to reveal her identity yet, but she is already a celebrity in fifth grade).

One thing is certain: I feel a lot more confident that they really understand the word than I did even after our review.

Postscript: After she gave permission, I sent out this email (I've changed the name):

Dear 5th Graders,

Many of you have been asking who figured out how I messed up. It was meərɪː wɑːləs who did the deed. What? You thought I was going to make it easy?

Congratulations, meərɪː wɑːləs! Now, I'm sure I will never make a mistake again (cough, cough), so you can all rest easy, and not be watching me like hawks for my next mistake, right?

So, now they're all busily translating the name and checking it with me. And, of course, they'll all be watching me like hawks for the next mistake. This is just too much fun.

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