Print

Hello Real Spellers,

I was working on something else and I was reminded of this wonderful question from a Grade 3 student from the International School of Beijing in Sam Soranson's Grade 3 class. In fact, I received this email from them the night before my presnetation last fall at the IDA in Chicago, and I shared it during my session as an illustration of the kind of thinking in which young students engage when their teachers help them investigate spelling scientifically. 

I wanted to post this letter ages ago, but it slipped my mind. Let me share the question, and then I will add just a couple of comments before seeking advice on how beginning teachers might respond to this question from a student...

Hello Pete & Real Spelling

My name is Emily. I am in 3 S at ISB – Beijing. I have been learning about the different spellings of the base word meter/metre. We learned this week that the British use the word meter to mean something you can measure with. They use the word metre to mean the unit of measurement. My class have been wondering whether that makes meter and metre a homophone in the British spelling? We also found meter in the word cemetery? Where does that come from?

 I have also some questions about a base word. It is the word remember. What is the base word for remember? It can’t be member because that has nothing to with the meaning? Can you help us please?

Thank you for helping us with our word action – that’s what we call it!

Emily & 3 S

Some thoughts...

Although this question can get into some interesting and advanced ideas, I would like to start by asking any responders to think about what a beginning teacher might be able to offer the student asking this question. I would also like to encourage teachers to consider how we can use this question to assess the knowledge this studnet already demonstrates, and what ideas might be good to focus on. 

I have a teaching principle I'd like to emphasize that has a particualar value to guide an intitial response to questions that that gets into content that I cannot sort out without some more inense research. Ask yourself:

"What is the most generative principle about spelling available in this question that I can address at this time for htis studnet."

One thing that jumps out at me is that this students questions are extremely perceptive, but that her ability to understand independently will be greatly aided by applying word sums to her thinking. So just an intial response using word sums could help move the learning along. In my response, I can also just start using angle brackets to help the student and teacher get used to those signals of addressing the spelling of words. (Remember that on Real Spellers, we need to put any text inside angle brackets in bold in order for it to publish properly. 

Also, from this email, I can tell that this student has been taught, and has learned that to understand spelling, we have to think about meaning. I make that assessment from this statement: 

What is the base word for remember? It can’t be member because that has nothing to with the meaning? 

So, my own first response is to congratulate Emily for recognizing that if they can't show a meaning link between <member> and <remember> they are absolutely correct to dismiss the idea that they are related, even though they see an initial <re> that is often, but not necessarily a prefix. 

The word sum re + member --> remember may be tempting, but unless we can show that <remember> and <member> share a common origin, I have to come to the conclusion that they are not related.

"Big Idea" #1: To conclude that two words are morphologically related, we need to test both their structure and meaning.

 The "structure test" is whether a coherent word sum can be produed that links two words with a common spelling for a base. There is a plausible structural connection between these words, so we past the structure test. But passing the structure test is not enough. We also need to pass the "meaning test" That test requires us to investigate the root origin of the two words. Instead of checkng myself, I would ask Emily and her teaceher to find the root of these two words so they can tell me if they can confirm their conclusion that these words are not related. 

I can also reinforce this same "Bid Idea" with the comment about <cemetery>. Emily writes:

"We also found meter in the word cemetery? Where does that come from?"

Here the value of the word sum is so clear. I would ask Emily to test her hypothesis that these may be related by creating a word sum showing that relation. That word sum would have to look like this:

? ce + meter + y --> cemetery

(Note: I forget who it was, but a friend recently suggested the convention of an initial question mark for a hypothesized word sum. This is great, because it signals that this is not a conclusion, but a hypothesis. I'd be curious if other teachers see how this convention works for them.)

With the wirtten representation of this hypothesis defining this hypothesis, we can see problems very quickly. I can ask Emily if she sees any parts of this word sum that she is not sure of. From the knowledge Emily shows in this question, I expect she can point to the <ce> as a questionable suffix. If she doesn't, I can simply ask her if she can find any words with a this prefix. If she can't (I certainly have never found such evidence) we can conclude that in fact <cemetery> and <meter> must be unrelated as well. There is no clear maning connection, but we don't even have to check that if the word sum doesn't work.

For the moment I may stop there. For me, the most generative concepts I could think to address through this question for Emily at this time was to target the big idea about testing morphological connections with structure and meaning, and that this means we have to test these hypotheses with word sums (structure), and etymological references (meaning).

Now, I have not even addressed the part of the question that interests me the most. The wonderful ideas aobut homophones and the US/Brittish spellings of <meter> and <metre>. I happen to know something about this, but I get to decide when I go into that. If anyone out there wants to take on that question a little bit, I would be delighted to pass on that challenge.

I can now tell any beginner teacher, that to take on this question, they are going to need to use a word sum, and consult etymological references. Etymonline is one recommended source -- but try more than one!

I can also plant a seed about considering whether the US <meter> or the Brittish <metre> is more coherent, and the same for <centre> or <center>. Use word sums to build the words <metric> and <central> to help you come to a conclusion. 

Please share any insights you have here. I'm sure Emily and her class will delight to find their questions are sparking international thinking!

Peter