Today, my new third-grade student came in with a burning question. He wanted to talk about the word <psycho>, which he had found in a Calvin and Hobbes book entitled Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat. What a rich place to start!

I asked him what was it that puzzled him about <psycho> and he said he didn't know what the <p>was doing there.

I asked him if he knew what the <psycho> meant and he suggested 'wild and crazy.' Then I asked him if he knew any other words that might be related to it, and he gave me <cycle> and <cycler>!

So we lined up these words like this:




I asked him what he noticed about them. He replied that:

1) All three were pronounced /s/ at the beginning but that in <psycho> there was a <ps> and in the other two there was only a <c>,

2) All three had <y> after the /s/ and before a <c>.

3) All three had a <c> spelling /k/ after the <y>

This gave us the opportunity to talk about three signs that a word is of Greek origin: the digraph <ps> , medial <y> and the digraph <ch> representing /k/.

We did not pursue the words <cycle> or <cycler> further at this time, ripe though they were, in order to proceed with building a matrix for <psych>.

We added the word <psychopath> to the matrix and discussed the meaning of this word and how his word <psycho> was actually a clip of <psychopath>. Then we talked about ESP and put the word <psychic> on the matrix. Then my student offered <sidekick>! I said "Wow, <psychic> and <sidekick>! What an interesting pair of words!

We transcribed both in IPA:



"Oh," he said, "The only thing that's different is /d/."

"Right!" I said. "So we pronounce these two words almost the same."

Now let's look at their structure and meanings. And we made mini-matrices:

1) <side> and <kick> - separate morphemes creating a compound

2) <psych> and <ic> - a base and a suffix

We discussed the meanings of the two words, highlighting the fact that their similarities were only in pronunciation, and this turned out not to be helpful in determining their spelling! What determined their spellings was their structure and their meanings.

In my former life, my student would probably not have come into the session with a question, and we would not, of course, not have been creating a matrix. But we might have been reading his Calvin and Hobbes book together and come across <psycho>. Perhaps he might have had trouble reading it. I might have decided to make a list of words beginning with <psych> so that we could figure out the meaning together. Perhaps I would have put <psychologist> and <psychic> on the list and asked the student for other suggestions, and he might have offered the word <sidekick>. What would I have said next?

"Well, <sidekick> and <psychic> sound similar but they have different meanings".

(I am quite sure that if the student had been fully able to comprehend that statement, he never would have brought up <sidekick> in the first place!)

Then I might have provided a cue: "I was thinking about something like <psychological>." Then, between us, and perhaps with the help of one of my many books of "roots", we would have added to our list, talked about meanings, and perhaps practised reading the words. I’m sure I never would had him practise spelling the words because, after all, he was only in third grade.

This experience today helped me to clarify some of the things I’m learning from my encounters with Real Spelling:

1) the richness of student-led inquiry

2) the irrelevance of developmental stages in learning

3) the value of precise terminology, and the indispensibility of IPA in this precision

4) the subordinate role of pronunciation in determining spelling

I would be interested in hearing about the moments others have had that have insights into the transformative power of linguistic scholarship