Kathryn Hastings, an associate prfoessor and Director of Reading Programs at Eastern University College of Education in Pennsylvania, attended my 2018 Summer Course. She was clearly excited about her learning during the course and we have been in contact about ways to bring this new understanding to her education classes.

They have just started their course work, and the other day Kathryn sent me a copy of the first student reflection she received. She was right to be excited by what her student expressed after this very first exposure to a linguistically valid undersstanding of how English orthography works through studying it through a "structured word inquiry" (2018) approach. 

With the permission of Kathryn and Megan Trexler, I am posting her 3 page reflection at THIS LINK. I'll paste a screen shot of the first page to whet your appetite for the whole thinks.

One reason I wanted to share this piece by Megan is that she does such a great job at capturing the essense of being introduced to the logic of English spelling for the first time.

She expresses the joy and engagement in the process, "I thought about the activity that we did in class last week. I was completely engaged in the lesson, and I left class wondering why. How could a lesson that is meant for younger children be so engaging for a group of adults?"

And she offers a perspective that totally reflects the refrain that nothing motivates like understanding, and the lack of motivation that is the result of memorization. "I was beginning to question things that I had never even thought about before, so I was completely curious. What else have I not thought about in regards to spelling? Again, as a student, I might have been given a list of words to spell, define, and use in a sentence. Nothing about that approach utilized generative concepts."

In the SWI community, the investigations can sometimes get quite complicated -- especially for people new to this understanding. But that's just the normal process that happens as anyone gains expertise in any domain. (I highly recommend a short article by John Salvatier titled "Reality has a surprising amount of detail" that articulates this point extremely well.) Those discussions are very exciting for those with a bit of experience behind them, but seem "over the top" to those new to this understanding, and thus inhibit interest in some. One thing I love about Megan's message is that she articulates the profound learning experiences that can occure with just a very intial exposure. 

Megan asks some quesions in her piece. I'll respond to some of those in the comments. I hope that others in Megan's class and around the world respond to what she has to share. I'd love this post to offer a launching pad for discussions of these ideas and others as Kathryn's class continues this journey.

Hats of to Kathryn and Megan for getting this orthographic ball rolling!

Below is a screenshot of page 1. You definitely want to download the full 2.5 pages HERE.

 

Screen Shot 2018 09 06 at 11.05.45 AM

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. Megan Trexler

Hi Peter,

Thank you so much for your detailed response to my reflection! I wanted to respond to a few of the points you made.

Complicated inquiries, fiddliness, and asking questions
I could really relate to your statement about inquiries becoming complicated. You said, “In the SWI community, the investigations can sometimes get quite complicated -- especially for people new to this understanding. But that's just the normal process that happens as anyone gains expertise in any domain.” I checked out the article from John Salvatier that you referenced. Salvatier says, “If you’re a programmer, you might think that the fiddliness of programming is a special feature of programming, but really it’s that everything is fiddly, but you only notice the fiddliness when you’re new."

In light of both your comment and Salvatier's thoughts on fiddliness, I began to wonder if our new position in the SWI inquiry is a challenge or an advantage. By this, I mean that many of us have been taught to learn our language through memorization and rules, which seems to inhibit the questioning that is central to SWI. Once we just accept language the way it is, the questions are harder to ask. (Often, kids seem better at asking questions than adults! Maybe it's because so much is new to them and they haven't yet been taught to focus primarily on answers.) When I first tried to generate questions about specific words and spellings, I couldn't think of anything. However, the further I've gone with our investigation, the more I'm able to generate inquiries. I think that part of SWI is helping students to formulate their own inquiries, as this is a new mindset and approach from what they might be used to.

Matrix, matrixes, and matrices
I was fascinated with your exploration of the word "matrix." As you said, this word has a Latin base with the same spelling: "We plucked this word directly from Latin. It's not actually an English word. . . . One characteristic of a Loan word is that it can keep its original spelling which signals to English readers that we are seeing a non-English word. However, once a word is used regularly in English it can start to take on characteristics of the orthographic culture into which it has arrived."

Your explanation of this helped raise some additional questions for me: Do some "loan words" ever not go through the process of becoming more anglicized? If so, why do some words go through a process of evolving into becoming "more English" than others? Etymologically speaking, in cases when we add a grapheme to a word in order to differentiate it from a homophone, (i.e. please vs pleas), which of these words did we borrow into our orthography first--the one without the silent grapheme added?

In your response, you also posed this question: "How does the orthographic denotation of the Latin root matrix "pregnant animal, mother" inform our understanding of what an orthographic morphological matrix is?" To be honest, I was surprised when I first saw the meaning of the Latin root. However, this meaning actually does make sense. If the Latin root meant origin or a place where something develops, then this can inform our understanding of an orthographic, morphological matrix because morphological matrices identify the origin of a word. They can be thought of as a place where variations and word families develop.

Again, thank you for your detailed response and for helping me generate more questions! This approach is so refreshing and I'm really enjoying our inquiries into language.
Megan

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  Comment was last edited about 3 days ago by Megan Trexler Megan Trexler
  1. Peter Bowers

In Megan's footnote, we see the following question:

"Is the plural of matrix “matrixes” or “matrices”? Are both correct? If so, why do we sometmes use a “c” in place of an “x” when making the word plural? In a related question, why is “syllabi” correct instead of “syllabuses”?"

My favourite aspect of this question is that it is abundantly clear that her initial work with SWI in Kathryn's class has already made her an orthographic "noticer". Many in our community would have heard the expression "scholars are people who notice things" This is certainly true! (I address this idea in one of my favourite WW Newsletters when I share a story about "seeing" and "not seeing" snow plants on a hike in Yosemite at this link:https://tinyurl.com/zs32s4k).

Note that she puts the foot note right for this question right where she write the word "matrices" in her text. She knows the singular form is <matrix>, and that raises the question "What's going on with that <x> and <c>?" in her mind as she types. But here's the key point. All of us have asked ourselves spelling questions since we were kids. "Why is <does> spelled that way?" And also as adults. Just this morning was writing something and noticed that I didn't know the spelling of <prerogative>. My first attempt just followed a blind phonologically based assumption and I typed *<perogrative>. As soon as I found that attested spelling I understood the structure <pre + roge/ + ate/ + ive>! Not only did my misspelling have the wrong suffix, but it made no sense with the base <roge> from the Latin root rog(are) for "ask". If the word I wanted had a <per-> prefix, the word would have to have two <r>s!

What Megan shows by posting her question, is what I knew to do when I discovered I was curious about a spelling -- I knew that noticing something surprising about a spelling was not a reason to throw up my hands and say, I guess I just have to memorize that (something my mind has long established it sucks at!). Instead both Megan and I noticed a surprising spelling -- and used that as a launching pad for an investigation. And we only investigate spellings when we have reason to believe that there is an understanding to be found!

This is the first key point about SWI that Megan illustrates so well in her article. Being introduced to evidence that English spelling is well ordered, provokes our curiosity to investigate. We only investigate things that are understandable. When we accept the false description of English as full of "exceptions" we lose all motivation to inquire.

I just say all that by way of signalling that Megan's posing of question in the middle of writing is itself brilliant evidence of her learning. People always ask me about assessment with SWI. One response I give is simply the rate and quality of the questions posed by students. In fact, I argue that one of the best assessments of instruction is the quality of the questions students pose. By this measure Kathryn is doing some amazing instruction in Megan's class!

So finally, I'll offer a starter response to Megan's actual question.

First of all, I LOVE that Megan poses her question with the starting assumption that it may be that both spellings are "correct". I will recommend moving away from the word "correct". Instead, I would say that she is starting from the premise that it may be that both words are "attested". And in fact they are! Here is the entry from the Oxford on my Mac.

matrix |ˈmeɪtrɪks|
noun (plural matrices |ˈmātrisēz| or matrixes)

So now we have evidence that their is more than one spelling of this plural that is accepted by present day publishing houses. What understanding does this offer us? One key message I would highlight is that the fact that anytime we find more than one attested spelling of words in present day usage, we are given the gift of seeing that not only "did" English orthography evolve -- it still is! Evolution in any domain is not something that only happened long ago -- it never stops! English speakers and writers have not yet decided what the best fit for this plural is. But why is that?

To explore that question, we should look at a good etymological reference of the word <matrix>. I'vepasted in entry from Etymonline. I recommend exploring the word on Etymonline yourself so we can see it more clearly, and follow the etymological trail to the word <mother> Douglas provides.

matrix (n.)
late 14c., "uterus, womb," from Old French matrice "womb, uterus," from Latin matrix (genitive matricis) "pregnant animal," in Late Latin "womb," also "source, origin," from mater (genitive matris) "mother" (see mother (n.1)). Sense of "place or medium where something is developed" is first recorded 1550s; sense of "embedding or enclosing mass" first recorded 1640s. Logical sense of "array of possible combinations of truth-values" is attested from 1914. As a verb from 1951.

The first thing I want to highlight is that when you see word in italics in Etymonline, that signals a non-English word that is a source (a root) of the current word used in English. Notice that if you read Etymonline carefully the entry of the word <matrix> is shown to have a Latin root with the same spelling <matrix>.

This tells us that it is not that an we have a present day English word that evolved from a Latin root. Instead, we plucked this word directly from Latin. It's not actually an English word. The established linguistic term for such a word is that it is a "loan word". People might describe it as a "borrowing". One characteristic of a Loan word is that it can keep its original spelling which signals to English readers that we are seeing a non-English word.

However, once a word is used regularly in English it can start to take on characteristics of the orthographic culture into which it has arrived. Once English writers start to apply English suffixes to a word, we are seeing the process of a word evolving into becoming more English! If we write <matrices> we are still in Latin structure. If we write <matrixes> we are reflecting the fact that the word is in the process of anglicizing.

We see this in many places. People write both <spectra> and <spectrums>, <curriculums> and <curricula>. I none of these cases is one "correct" and the other "incorrect". Instead we just get to be linguists and describe what is.

There are many more questions provoked by Megan's question.

If I wanted to use the plural <matrices>, could I analyze that word structure with a word sum and include this word in a matrix with related English words? If so, what would the base be? What would the suffixes be? Could I also analyze <matrix> and <matrixes> in the same matrix!

I hope that the reader was excited by the sense and meaning we find from the etymology of <matrix>. How does the orthographic denotation of the Latin root matrix "pregnant animal, mother" inform our understanding of what an orthographic morphological matrix is?

I won't immediately respond to Megan's excellent and related question about <syllabus> and <syllabi>, but I hope I've armed the reader with ideas of how to explore the question on your own!

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