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This fall I will be traveling and studying in France with some of my teachers and some of my students. I plan to document the trip in a private online space, and am offering a limited opportunity for other scholars to share this experience with us. This is not a live LEXinar, but rather a place to share word studies, investigations, stories, photos, video, and narrative.

I hope you’ll join us. This is a non-refundable purchase, so please read the description carefully and ask any questions before you sign up at this link.

A couple days ago I just finished teaching my Syllables: Fact and Fiction LEXinar. And in a few days I will finish up another round of the Zero Allophone LEXinar. Scholars who have taken those classes understand more deeply each day why the syllabaloney of phonics has gone bad.

I recently engaged in some commentary on the blog of Dr. Tim Shanahan, a longtime proponent of phonics who appears to be unable to understand two key truths: (1) studying the language accurately is not just ‘doing morphology,’ and (2) pedagogical research is not the only research in the world.

One of Shanahan’s acolytes, Jo-Anne Gross, owner of a phonics company called Remediation Plus, demonstrated impressive tenacity in her misapprehensions, like that */c/ is the first phoneme in cat. Oh my. While repeatedly telling me that I’m wrong by citing actually wrong people like Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats, Jo-Anne also offers readers this stinky piece of linguistic charcuterie: “a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not ‘sound’ driven.”

I’ve offered Jo-Anne and Harriet free Syllables LEXinars with me. So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.”

So today I asked Jo-Anne and Tim (who has just stopped responding to me since I told him to stop sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me for being the scholar that I am) and Harriet, “So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?”

In this post, then, I will offer you what I wrote on the blog, and interspersed you will find the really beautiful, coherent understanding that real language study offers us.

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why ‘love’ isn’t spelled with a ‘u’ with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They’re both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Although they are proper adjectives, Finnish and Polish have totally coherent structures; we can see their free base elements in Fin, Finland, and Pole (but not in the blend Poland). Finish and polish both have base elements with single, final <e>s: <fine + ish>, <pole + ish> — we see that latter bound base also in polite. My fantastic 6th grader and I also investigated that <ish> suffix, which we also found in establish, embellish, and punish — it is a suffix formed from the <iss(e)> verbal stem suffix in French: etablissement, embellissezpunissons.

But perhaps she would’ve preferred to divide words into syllables on a list, eh?

As for to, do, who, and love, any real spelling scholar knows that when you can’t use a <u>, you use an <o>. And they know why you can’t use a <u> in those words. And so does my 2nd grader. Why? Because I showed her. And you know what? It totally mattered to her, even though Dr. Shanahan likes to speculate that facts don’t matter to 7-year-olds.

Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate — I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking?

The only way to explain the distinction is etymologically. Pizza is Italian, as is the mozzarella you put atop it. Patterns, people.

Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don’t know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, jostle? Why is the ‘t’ there? Because, château (oh, let your kiddos live a little!), wrest, and joust. Look, a lot of 6-year-olds would dig studying castles and châteaux and jousts, since phonics is so concerned with building everything around what kids want. We fact-finders will also tell you why wrestle needs a <wr> — because it denotes ‘twist.’ But all phonics can do is teach ‘stle’ as though it was a thing (it’s not), and ignore the pattern of the ‘t’ in listen, often, soften, and even ‘prints.’

Why is there a ‘c’ in muscle? Muscular. Or a ‘b’ about ‘subtle’? That’s an <sub> prefix, of course. Man, whoever stuck a ‘b’ in that word deserves a prize. Heh. Silent letter humor is the best humor because it’s the smartest.

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical association with the others. Aisle denotes ‘wing’ and is related to aileron and axis. That <s> was also a scribal error that stuck, because people associated it with isle, which came by its <s> honestly.

But I’m sure no small children would enjoy a story about long-ago monks and their false-steps and flourishes. Because it would be a lot more important for kindergarteners to study, you know, that */c/ is a phoneme. For Chrissakes.

How about in prin/ci/ple — why isn’t that ‘i’ long if it’s in an ‘open syllable’? Because in real life, there are only two types of syllables; open and closed. Open syllables end in a vowel (but not a lax vowel in English), and closed syllables have a consonant coda. The letters in a syllable have little to do with what ‘type’ of syllable it is: though is open but but cough is closed, and neither is exceptional. The word principle has an actual structure, and it’s <prin + cip(e) + le>. Which is different from a <prin + cip(e) + al). Check out that <le> suffix again, yo. Prince was clipped from the root of principle and principal, and princess was built from prince

What about treble and pebble? Yikes. Well, treble is related to triple (think 3-part harmonies), which also lacks a doubled medial consonant. Because, once again, in real life, it has an actual structure: <tri + ple> — stick a pin in that <ple> base element, which denotes ‘fold.’

Why is there an ‘o’ in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too? Because it’s so popular?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an ‘ou’ but octuple has just a ‘u’? Because, doubt and duplicitous, copula and copulate and because that <co> is the footprint of a prefix — you know, the one that carries a force of ‘with or together’? And octuple (not *octupple) has a connector <u>, as does quadruple, in which the pronunciation of the <u> is different. Ooh, fancy.  Why isn’t oc/tu/ple pronounced ‘octooople’? Because no one would understand you if you said that. Why isn’t multiple spelled *multipple? Because it’s <mult + i + ple>, that’s why (compare <mult + it(e) + ude>). In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Because, circus and sparkPhonics doesn’t answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Because an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.’ The original sense for ‘needle’ was botanical, as in a pine needle, not a sewing needle. Pine needles and porc + u + pine needles always come in more than one. Why isn’t poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle? Because they’re modern loans or coinages (both from German), respelled in the present-day English default, like shampoo and google and boondoggle.

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them. Even if Reid Lyon or Tim Shanahan or Jo-Anne or Harriet says so. 

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is “Fickle Syllable Boondoggle.” Funny how the syllabullies don’t hesitate to use the word “syllable” all the time with children who can’t “handle” big words.

Four new classes will be starting this fall, after Labor Day.

Two are regular short-term LEXinars (linked to registration pages):

InSights into VERBS This course is an excellent companion to the new InSights into Auxiliaries deck coming out in the late summer, also available in the LEX Store.

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The Nature of the Grapheme Great as a stand-alone class, a a complement to The Nature of the Phoneme, and/or a companion to the LEX Grapheme Deck.

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The other two are longitudinal, year-long LEXinars (linked to deposit page):

Grammar for Grown-Ups: study the English sentence using sentence trees and other hands-on tools to make sense of both syntactic form and function. This ain’t your grandma’s grammar.

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And the last one, back by popular demand, isn’t actually new. It is, however, a new study each time it’s undertaken.  Multisensory Structured Language Education: A Course in Advanced Considerations is a rich, critical inquiry into the professional field variably known as MLSE, Orton-Gillingham, or dyslexia intervention. It offers literacy professionals the opportunity to deepen their theoretical understanding of the field and to hone their practice to more accurately reflect real English structure.

LEXinar Advanced OG
Deposits for year-long classes are 100% refundable with terms. Course scheduling will begin as soon as a minimum number of people have registered (4 for the short classes; 10 for the year-long classes. Short classes price points have been determined; the longitudinal classes will be priced based on the number of students, the exact number of hours, and other parameters not yet determined, but estimated to be $1250-1500. Payment plans are available.

If you register and are unable to schedule with us, you may request a refund or hold your spot for the next time we offer class. I am totally not interested in keeping your money and not delivering a worthwhile, accurate, and challenging course. It’s all about the scholarship, and I can’t wait.

Continuing education units are expected though ALTA; application process is underway. All LEXinars have been approved in the past.

Don’t miss out!




I want to tell you about my helpers.

First, there are the two overqualified, graduate-degreed, creative, patient moms and entrepreneurs who have stepped up to help me better serve the LEX community. One is local, April, and helps me with materials and shipping. The other, Brenda, is a few states away and helps with LEXinars, communication, scheduling, and certificates. I so appreciate that their capable assistance not only helps in the present, but also helps grow this work for the future.

Second, there is a clever and slightly obsessed bilingual teacher who has taken faster to real word study than any adult I’ve seen yet. Scott Mills has been working at lightning speed to discover and understand word structure, cognates, lexical doublets, reconstructed historical roots, and their pathways over time. Since the original, invaluable Matrix Study Sheets are out of print, Scott has been helping to research and develop a new, 2nd edition complete with more etymological study and a special diachronic appendix.

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The LEX Matrix Study Sheets ~ 2nd Edition features more than 25 lexical word matrices in an expanded format, including their etymological relatives, and questions for further study. Targeting many of the common base elements of classical origin often misidentified in traditional phonics and “morphological” study, this softcover book includes both free and bound bases, unitary and twin bases, Latinate combining forms, and other associated bases. Useful for personal study, lesson planning, or direct instruction — including that special appendix.


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Third, since helpers are on my mind, I decided it’s high time for my InSights into Auxiliaries, also known as “helping verbs.” This fifth InSight deck is a study inspired by all the teachers, tutors, and homeschooling parents who wish they better understood just what an auxiliary verb is and what it does, with straightforward examples and descriptions. This deck features fifteen cards with English auxiliary verbs and verbal constructions. If you can’t tell a linking verb from a helping verb, this deck can help!

Both of these helpful new resources are now available in my LEX Store at an Early Bird discount for pre-order, and they will ship upon publication later this summer. I’ll also be announcing an Auxiliary Verb LEXinar later this year.

I love this stuff. I can’t help it.



Every so often I encounter a fresh wave of the Phombie Apocalypse, phonics apologists largely within and among the dyslexia industry, demanding “research” in one capacity or another because they are so convinced that somehow it’s OK to lie about language to children, parents, and teachers if you have some research that says it’s somehow a good idea.

Today, one particularly passive aggressive dyslexia industrialist asked, “So I know there’s lots of research supporting teaching morphology. But what about research for teaching etymology?” Now, she did not ask me, or anyone really who has been studying etymology and literacy for a long time. She asked a bunch of other phombies and quite a few quiet observers, in the same secret online space where she mentions me by name, insults me, and says that she can’t “stomach” giving me any money to help her learn.

Apparently she also can’t stomach doing her own Google search. So I thought I’d help this woman, this DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator, you know, research research.

What is research? What does it mean? To research means to “investigate systematically,” according to my Mactionary, to “discover facts by investigation.”   My friend’s mother, a toxicologist, researches avian morbidity. As a noun, research refers to such an investigation, to analysis, study, scrutiny, or examination: She will publish her research in a book this fall.

How is it built?  <research> → <re> + <search> , in which the <re> does not mean ‘back or again,’ but rather, carries an intensifying force. Morphologically, then, research denotes “intensive(ly) look.”  To look. To search emphatically. To search, to hunt, to explore. A search is a quest, a pursuit, a discovery. Research is that same thing, but intensive.

What are its relatives? I knew before I looked that search and research were cognate to Modern French chercher and rechercher, which mean basically the same thing. The native English words would have been secan (‘to seek’) and huntian (‘to hunt’) before the Normans exported Old French’s cerchier to their nordic cousins across the pond. I figured as much. What really surprised me were the origins of that Old French word: from Late Latin circare meaning ‘to wander around, to circle.’

Check out these relatives: 

See, research has nothing to do with standing still or resting on one’s laurels. It’s double- and triple-checking the ground it’s already covered; replicating results. Not wandering in circles, but intensively looking, looking around, hunting for facts. Any good research doesn’t just offer conclusions, but suggests new possible investigations, new questions. It is always moving.

What about the way research is pronounced? Now that we’ve researched its structure and relatives, we are prepared to consider how its pronunciation constructs meaning. It’s been spelled a lot of different ways since the Normans brought it over — with an <s> and a <c>, with an <ea> and an <e>, with a <ch> and a <tch> and an <sh> — you can intensively look at the history for yourself in any proper dictionary.

Huh. I wonder why dictionaries include etymology. Is that a research-based practice?

Anyhow, the word research is not actually pronounced the same way across the English-speaking world. In the U.S., most speakers stress the first syllable: [ˈɹisɚʧ]. But in Received Pronunciation in the U.K., the second syllable is traditionally stressed — [ɹəˈsɜːʧ].

Double huh. Imagine that. The same spelling works for different pronunciations because the word means the same thing. I think every time you disprove the Assumption of Phonological Primacy, a phombie coughs up its wings. Or something.

Anyhow, now that we’ve researched research, let’s return to the original question: “But what about research for teaching etymology?” In response, I have a few questions of my own:

(1) How do you propose to study morphology WITHOUT studying etymology? How could you tell the difference between feet and feat without etymology? How could you explain an <-able> versus an <-ible> without etymology? How would you be able to explain why laugh has a <ugh> and graph has a <ph>? Even Barton hacks teach kids — truthfully — that <ph> is reliably Greek. Do you do that because you read a double-blind study on its efficacy, or just because it’s true?

(2) If etymology were irrelevant to literacy, why would dictionaries include it?

(3) What kind of research are you referring to? Linguistic research has clearly established the etymological governance of English orthography; it’s non-controversial.

(4) If you’re a fan of pedagogical ‘research’, then I’d point you in the direction of Marcia Henry’s nearly 40-year canon of work on etymology and its significance — she wrote “Beyond Phonics: Integrated Decoding and Spelling Instruction Based on Word Origin and Structure” in the 1980s — as well as Calfee and Nist and  Venezky and Groff and many others before her.

(5) If you don’t like Marcia Henry’s ethos, then I’d ask if you’re familiar with Malt Joshi, Louisa Moats, Suzanne Carreker, or Rebecca Treiman? Can you stomach giving any of them your money? I bet you can. They are all phonics researchers who have written extensively about literacy instruction including etymology. You like phonics, right? They co-wrote a whole article for the American Educator in 2009 that made a big hoo-hah about how important it was to teach etymology, even though they got many of their etymological claims wrong. They think etymology is important — their research says so — just apparently not important enough to, you know, actually crack open a dictionary before claiming that ache is Greek (nope, it’s Germanic) or that is chair is Anglo-Saxon (uh-uh, Franco-Hellenic) in an article you’re publishing for millions of American teachers to read.

(6) Even Maryanne Wolf, who bears a lot of responsibility for pegging dyslexia as a phonological deficit because that’s what she studied, recognizes and writes about the importance of etymology in English literacy in Proust and the Squid.

(7) So does Mark Seidenberg, perhaps one of the most revered pro-phonics cognitive psychologists out there, when he writes about studying the origins of the written word in his phancy new book.

(8) If you’d like to get some broader pedagogical research, or any other kind, then might I suggest Google Scholar? It’s easy.

Here’s some stuff I found (in about 25 minutes of research) that actually considers literacy through a lens other than / broader than the dyslexia industry is usually willing to:

(a) Improving Adult Literacy and Instruction (NRC 2012), which says that “There is a surprising lack of rigorous research on effective approaches to adult literacy instruction,” but also specifically names “etymology” and “word origins” as one of the aspects of language that necessarily informs literacy, multiple times. “These strategies include teaching not only word meanings but also multiple meanings of words and varied word forms and origins.”

(b) Learning through Collaborative Writing (Hodges 2002) flags one aspect of language study “at the drafting stage which seems to contribute to the high levels of motivation and collaboration is the investigation into word origins and their…effect on meaning.”

(c) Middle School Learners’ Use of Latin Roots to Infer the Meaning of Unfamiliar Words (Crosson & McKeown 2016) — that’s the same Margaret McKeown that phonics drools over every time she writes with Isabel Beck. How do you study Latin “roots” without etymology? Huh, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator? How?

(d) Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners (Graves, August, Mancilla-Martinez 2012), again featuring a favorite vocabulary researcher among the phombies, Michael Graves. Along with his co-authors, Graves writes about word origin and language origin and cognates. A lot of ELL research pertains to the study of cognates. How on earth would you study cognates without etymology? In fact, when people try to do so, it gets pretty messy and misguided.

Like Moats and her colleagues, Graves also thinks etymology is important enough to flag, but apparently not important enough to fact-check: he misidentifies as “Germanic” the words glue, pencil, and table, all of which are actually Latinate, and bat, which was influenced by and collapsed with a French word. Four of the six examples he gave were wrong. That’s an F. Seriously, why can’t people actually look up the origins of words if they want to tell teachers it matters? Maybe this is why teachers are so confused.

(e) You might also be interested in all the work of Victoria Devonshire & Morris Fluck in the U.K. since about 2009. They write about etymology in literacy instruction.

You know, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator, it’s cynical and intellectually dishonest to continue to pretend like etymology may not be important or well-researched in literacy circles. Etymology and word origins are written into the Common Core State Standards, into the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers, and into the current Reading/Language Arts Frameworks for California Public Schools.

But none of that matters one lick to me, because the facts — discovered by investigation — are that the orthography is not primarily phonological and the system is governed by etymology. You can’t understand the system without its origins, DisIngenuous Tutor-Educator. You already study it; you already teach it, and you already know that.

You’re not really asking for research. You’re just circling your wagons.

You know, sometimes you just have to talk to a doctor about something embarrassing and there’s no way around it, so here I go.

To Dr. Karen: A Review of Your “30 Tier 2 Words for Language Therapy”

This freely available, online, language education resource is written by Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, my fellow scholar from Illinois State University, one of the nation’s oldest public universities, and one of the largest producers of educators in the U.S. Whether those claims to fame are good things or bad things depends on your opinion, I guess.

Here’s something that doesn’t depend on opinion, however: facts. Not alternative facts; the real kind. Like, for example, linguistic facts. So I’d like to offer you my opinion on the facts — and the fictions — in your work. In the free sample you offer visitors to your website, you offer 30 words for study, and more than a third of them are misidentified. Oops! That’s a 63%. At ISU, I’m pretty sure that’s a D.

Since you took the time to check out my work, Dr. Karen, I thought I’d do the same, so I ordered the free resource you offer on your web page, and I watched your video to learn all about the “magic bullet for treating language disorders.”

Just curious. Have you read any of the research on the effects of morphological study on vocabulary? I don’t give a toot, myself, but I know how much you like research. And vocabulary. I did not realize that vocabulary was a magic bullet at all! Imagine my surprise in learning that if you study what words mean with your students, they do better with language tasks! Clearly magic is the only reasonable explanation for such an improvement.

As far as bullets go, I admit that I have not yet tried shooting my students to see if that helps. But then again, I’m not a doctor, and if you google me, you can verify that fact.

I thought about asking the people on SpellTalk what they thought of your work, Doctor Karen, but since the administrators kicked me out of their club for truth-telling like five years ago, I couldn’t. So I decided to just write in my own space, publicly, instead of to other people in secret, to alert you directly to the following conceptual errors in your resource:

1. You identify as nouns the following words: route and trance. Of course, they can both be nouns, but they can also be verbs. You don’t know what they are until they’re in an actual phrase, but they’re not. They’re disembodied on flash cards, with no explanation or investigation. Just as you can’t tell how a morpheme will be pronounced until it surfaces in a word, you also can’t tell what part of speech something is until it surfaces in a phrase or clause.

a. They will route the new bus line though my old neighborhood. 

b. She’s tranced and won’t be roused.

The other nouns on the list have reliably nominal suffixes or suffixion constructions: recreation, compassion, location, assortment, disability, gratitude. Masterpiece is a compound noun, and memory, like history  and category, is a noun too,  and linking it to memorial (historical, categorical) makes better sense of its meaning, structure, and pronunciation.

I’d like to see the empirical research evidence that flashcards are a better mechanism for teaching vocabulary than actually studying the a word’s structure and relatives, upon which you undoubtedly based your materials.    

2. On your list of verbs to memorize, you offer ramble, embraced, challenge, underestimate, and collapse. Again, while these can be verbs, they also have other possibilities:

a. Let’s go for a ramble through the woods, shall we? (Noun. If a clown is asking, say no.)
b. Embraced by visual artists, the new technology has made a big splash. (Adjective.)
c. Well that’s a challenge, isn’t it? (Noun.)
d. The adjustor’s underestimate was rejected by the contractor. (Noun.)
e. Did you ever study the collapse of the Roman Empire? (Nounity noun noun. Et tu, Brute?)

So, fully half of the words that the Doctor prescribes for verbosis, with no phrasal context to establish them as verbs, can also be, well, not verbs.

Have you got any good peer-reviewed research to support calling nouns “verbs,” I wonder?

Well hey, third time’s the charm, right?

3. Wrong. Of your ten “adjectives,” three can be other word classes, (leisurely, tender, and cunning) and one is patently not adjectival (rehearse):

a. The governess pushed the pram leisurely along. Pip pip and cheerio. (That’s an adverb.)
b. I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender. (A noun.)
c. Please tender my regards to your kindly mother. (Verb.)
d. The garden’s tender had passed away, and the garden grew weedy. (Noun again!)
e. Her cunning is unmatched. No, really, it’s unmatched I tell you! (Noun.)
f. You should really rehearse your parts of speech before you make false claims. (Verb? Word.)

The words that are correctly pegged as adjectives? Glorious, adorable, flawless: those suffixes, <ous>, <able>, and <less>, and are reliably adjectival. The reason those words are adjectival is because that syntax is carried in their final morphemes (compare gloryadore, and flaw).

Can you please point me to the empirical research studies that prove it’s better to memorize three adjectives off of flash cards than it is to study the facts of the writing system?

I’m asking for a friend.

Well I’m running late.

Been running late all week. I was suppose to end the Etymology V Earlybird Discount price yesterday (2/25), and I neglected to do so. So I’m extending it instead, to the end of the month, Tuesday, 2/28. After that point, deposits already made are non-refutable, and only the full-price registration will be available.

However! I also do plan, after careful consideration, to have a Zoom-In option, live only, no actives. For folks overseas or unable to travel, I will have assistants in the room, at the event, manning the Zoom camera and addressing Zoom issues so that Doug and I can do our thing. Th online option will come at a slight discount, since I will not be charging for catering, room fees, or site insurance.

The live attendance fee structure will remain in place for two more days, an then it’s full-price. The single online price will be made available that same day. Registration is still in my online store or via P.O.

Gotta go — running late.

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