Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Hello Real Spellers,

I received an account of a great start to an investigation by a teacher at a school sho is just starting out with structured word inquriy. I wanted to share the question, and the response I passed on to help them get started. 

One of the biggest challenges for teachers getting started with the structured inquiry of written words is just the act of getting started. The suggestions I offer here are not limited to this question - but apply to any investigation. So first the question from a teacher investigating hte word <migrate> with her students

It wasn't easy to find the evidence using the resources, but here's what we think:

To migrate (from the Latin migrare) means to move.

When a person immigrates, they intend to stay. Hence the im=not; moves with the intention of staying.

I congratulated the teacher for her hypothsis wich is right on track, and the fact that she just jumped in with her students. 

The critical tool missing from this analysis, however, is a word sum. A matrix for the proposed base would be great as well. A guide for teachers so that they do not avoid this and other key steps is that they fix a chart like this in their classroom so that they and their students are constantly reminded of useful steps to take in the scientific inquiry of any word:


Consider how the investigation I share follows the steps of this chart. This means that you can use this chart to investigate other questions too.

It is very understandable to assume <migrate> is a base. But there is a clue in this word to follow and test, but it requires that the teacher knows about something called a "bound base". That is simply a base that is not free to stand on its own in a word. It has to be bound to other elements.

Once teachers and students are used to sing <-ate> suffixes, the final <ate> of <migrate> grabs our attention to investigate with a word sum. A letter sequence that can be a suffix certainly does not need to be a suffix. Clearly <king> and <spring> do not use <-ing> suffixes, and the proof is in the necessary word sums:

*k + ing --> king

*spr + ing --> spring

<k> and <spr> do not make sense as bases. They can't be combined as bases with any other morphemes to make words that make sense.

So, after (Step 1) making sure they know what the words means, the crucial step for a word scientist investigating the word <migrate> is to determine if this is a base or a complex word (Step 2). Since <ate> is a possible suffix, we should apply a word sum to see if what is left makes sense.

?migr + ate --> migrate

I will admit, that at first blush, <migr> may seem an unlikely base. But as scientists, we have to get used to the fact that whether something "looks" right can never be used as evidence on which we draw conclusions. Something "looking funny" can be accepted as scientific evidence that something is not so.

So how do we find evidence? We look for plausible relatives (Step 3).


If <migr> is a base, then we would expect to find it in words associated with other affixes. Thus the beauty of the Word Searcher. When I type my hypothesized base <migr> in the search field, I get this evidence bank of words to investigate.

Search Results for "migr"

(29 matches)






























You may have questions about <emigre>, and that would be an interesting word to investigate, but for the moment, it is the word <migrant> that catches my attention.

A migrant is one who migrates. So the meaning is clearly related. It is still wise to check etymological relations to confirm, and indeed I get support for my hypothesis that <migrant> and <migrate> are from the same Latin root 'migrare' when I check in Etymonline.

The word <migrant> also has a logical suffix for "one who" that makes sense in structure and meaning. I can make this word sum:

migr + ant --> migrant

With that word sum, and my previous word sum migr + ate --> migrate, and evidence that these two words share the same Latin origin, I have constructed solid scientific evidence that <migrant> is not a base. Instead is a complex word which shares a base with <migrant>.

I could even make a little starter matrix to clarify this point:

Screen Shot 2017 12 31 at 5.37.11 PM

With my evidence bank from my Word Searcher, I might start working with my class to make further word sums to see if I can expand this starter matrix. If I have a Word Microscope, I have a great place to start by making a matrix with that.

Can you see how helpful analysis with the matrix and word sum is to guide and refine your investigation and your thinking?

You wrote:

When a person immigrates, they intend to stay. Hence the im=not; moves with the intention of staying.

This thinking is exactly right, but in order to communicate and test that understanding precisely, we just need to place it into the structure of a word sum:

im + migr + ate + s --> immigrates.

 And now we have evidence for expanding our matrix. Every plus sign in a word sum is a vertical line in a matrix. 

Screen Shot 2017 12 31 at 5.39.39 PM



This new matrix now represents all of the word sums I have constructed.

And working through this process with students while you work through this investigation yourself illustrates the process of investigating words scientifically and the understanding that comes with it.

Readers may now be interested in a previous post on the structure of <migrate> that covers similar territory.

Finally, if you want to get your head around the whole "bound base" thing better, let me recommend this video of a lesson introducing bound bases and twin bases to a Grade 5/6 class.

For another example of the importance of relying on word sums to guide our investigations, see this comment on a recent post on an investigation of whether <le> can be considered a suffix.

Happy Spelling!


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