Here comes our 8th annual Etymology! conference, April 3, 4, 5, in Scottsdale, Arizona

Saddle up with Douglas Harper and Gina Cooke for a wild ride through the history of American English and a study of its hoofprints on English spelling. Place names, animal names, plant names, natural pheomena: everything new in the New World needed a new word.

Join us in the Arizona Territory as we investigate the etymological effects on English spelling and explore indigenous influences in the Online Etymological Dictionary. Deepen your understanding of the many common English words that are not Germanic, Latin, or Greek, but uniquely American. 

Full registration details are now available in the LEX Store. This includes attending one, two, or all three days in person, or the 3-day online attendance option.

Or Download the Conference Registration PDF.

Westward Ho!


Yeah, No

The woman on the left is the founder of a reading intervention company, and the woman on the right is one of her trainers.

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Yesterday, at the International Dyslexia Association conference, the woman on the right came over to my exhibit table. I did not know her, and I noticed that she was not wearing a name tag in the highly-monitored exhibit hall. There was a small crowd of people at my table, and Catherine began to ask me some very confrontational questions of the “What do you do for a kid who has X problem and can’t Y” nature.
“What do you do for a kid who has a really low vocabulary and can’t understand one of those tables [a word matrix]?”
Or “What do you do for a kid who can’t remember all the sounds in a word?”
Et cetera.
I patiently answered her questions. “A child with a low vocabulary still knows the words do, does, done, doing, undo, redo,” I said. “Or today, tonight, tomorrow, into, onto,” I added.
When she barked her fourth or fifth question at me, which was, “What do you do for a kid who needs phonemic awareness training?”, I did what any good teacher does:
“Well,” I asked her, “how do you handle that now?”
“I DO PHONEMIC AWARENESS ACTIVITIES!!!!” she verily hollered at me. She moved herself closer to the table and pointed her finger my way. “But I’m not here to answer your questions. I’m asking YOU questions. What do YOU do?”
So, although she clearly believed that she was there to impersonate a machine gun, I responded thoughtfully, as I had been responding to people’s questions for two days. “We work with the understanding that English spelling makes sense,” I began to explain.
“Yeah, I know all that,” she interrupted. “I’m asking how you do phonological awareness.”
I continued. “When you start with sense and meaning, then you put phonology in its proper place. See, Orton-Gillingham puts phonology first,” I went on.
“I DON’T DO ORTON-GILLINGHAM!” she responded. She said she does “linguistics.” She said something about teaching kids “mouth cards,” whatever that is. But she also articulated the following abject garbage:
~She claimed that the [j] in onion was a “schwa.” I explained that a schwa is a mid-central vowel and pointed out that [j] is a palatal consonant.
~She claimed that the word action has an <act> base and a *<tion> suffix, but that the two <t>s “overlap.”
My colleague responded, “That is not a thing.” Because, you know, that is not, in fact, a thing.
~She claimed that the words union and onion were not related, even after I showed her that they both derive from the Latin root unio/unionem.

In the meantime, other people were listening, enjoying, and making that little mind-blown signal with their hands.

~She claimed that <ea> only spells [eɪ] in “three words” — but I pointed out that the base element <break> alone surfaces in close to 100 words.
~She claimed that the word <yea> is pronounced [jæ] — but it is, of course [jeɪ ]. She had no idea what ‘yea and nay’ or ‘the yeas have it’ meant. I explained that [jæ] is spelled <yeah> and takes the final <h> because it has a lax vowel. “But yeah is informal, and yea can be formal,” I said. She shook her head at me.

Here’s what the Mactionary (and every other dictionary, really) has to say:
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~She referred to [s] and [dʒ] as *sibilates. Close: they are sibilants. She appealed to the authority of her colleague, trained in the same silliness. Warning: appeal to authority is a logical fallacy.
~She claimed that there are four suffixes which she pronounced [ʃʌn, ʒʌn, ʧʌn, & jʌn]; I patiently explained that there was only one suffix, spelled <ion>, and that an <i> can palatalize a preceding <t>, <s>, <c>, or <x> in Latinate words. She off-gassed some more Phombie gospel about shuns and chuns and chit.
“I’ll tell you what,” I offered. “I teach a class on Latin palatalization,” I said. “I will let you take that class for free.”
“I TOOK LATIN! I know all that.”
At this point, I didn’t even try to explain to her the difference between someone who took a Latin class once, and the deep and coherent study of how Latinate patterns work in English spelling. I just reiterated my offer to take a $140 class for free.
And she just reiterated how she already knew all the Latin things, only louder. In among the word salad, she shredded some grammarese. “I studied Latin and I learned that every word has a case.”
“Well, if you learned that, you were lied to,” I said. “Every Latin noun has a case, but not every Latin word. Verbs don’t have case.”
“Yes they do!” she insisted. “They have cases that show their tense.”
I shook my head in stunned disbelief. “Look, you’re obviously very confident in your understanding, but you’re wrong,” I explained. “Verbs have tense, but case is nominal. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles can have case, but not verbs. I think you mean inflection,” I offered.
Adding several decibels and to her outside voice, she began to continue her tirade, so I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you need to leave my table now. Not only are you patently wrong, but you’re yelling at me.”
She huffed one last puff, and as she walked away, she turned back and shrieked my way, “No WONDER they stuck you way over in the corner ALL BY YOURSELF!” Everyone stared at her. The fact is that I had chosen a booth on an aisle near the restrooms and an exit, and had no shortage of visitors.
The small crowd at my table began to assure me that this woman had behaved bizarrely confrontationally, and that I had responded patiently and generously. One New Yorker said, “You’re my new guru. My one talent is being able to tell when someone knows what they’re talking about, and you clearly do.”
A bit later, someone told me that that woman — the shouty one who’s memorized all the phonics on the answer key of life — was actually a fellow IDA exhibitor; she was there running the Wired for Reading booth. Oh, she was Wired all right. WfR is a phonics program that calls itself “linguistics” although the developer is not a linguist and the people who work there have not studied linguistics — that seems to be a trend [cough cough DTI]. The developer of the program, Laura Rogan, admits that she relies on her “intuition” and “creativity,” neither of which are actually linguistics. Anne Phillips, a Phombie who dedicates part of her life to misrepresenting SWI on Twitter, is also a WfR person. I looked up WfR online, found Catherine Thompson’s photo, and realized that she had actually removed her name tag specifically to come over and harangue me at my table in front of a small audience of my gobsmacked clients and colleagues.

Gee, why do you think this gaggle of lady language liars might be threatened by a real linguist? As my colleague who witnessed the whole thing said, “If you’re going to try to take on Gina Cooke about phonology, you better buckle up.”

I’ve offered free classes to dozens of people, but people like Catherine Thompson never take me up on it, because they’re more interested in feeling right than in sharing in an accurate and coherent understanding. So, Catherine Thompson, the Latin Palatals class is still yours to take for free, but the offer expires at the end of this calendar year.

Is the class any good, you wonder? Well, just ask anyone who’s taken it.

The yeas have it.

LEX has a brand new calendar for 2020. The backgrounds and graphics are all shiny. Gold, silver, copper, jewel tones. The theme is dedicated to worldwide observances each month.

I hope to put together a second option, geared toward kids, as well. As always, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to support Cure JM, in honor of Cupcake.

Order yours now! Before it’s too late.

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One of the ways that my understanding is a life-changing improvement over phonics is that I can prove that there are no four-letter graphemes. All the phonics people — really, everyone — believe that *<ough>, *<augh>, and *<eigh> are graphemes, which they call *quadgraphs. This false conceit often requires people to accept that an *<ough> can spell a bunch of different “sounds,” including vowel-consonant combinations like [ʌf] in rough or the [ɔf] in cough. Or else it comes with a list of 19 or 20 “exceptions.” Seriously — look at your own phonics materials and you’ll see what a convoluted explanation is offered.

In real life, there’s a consonant trigraph <ugh> that spells [f] and a vowel trigraph <igh> that spells [aɪ], and they can both also be etymological markers, spelling nothing at all. Today, a really sweet woman who is new to studying with me asked me to tell her where she “can locate information about quad-graphs not being truly accurate.” She has ordered materials from me, though they haven’t shipped yet. And she told me that she’s already watched this film, but she asked to read a written explanation somewhere. So instead of writing a response directly to her and her alone, I’m writing this for everyone, especially for me, so I can point people here in the future.

So, what’s wrong with calling *<ough> and *<augh> and *<eigh> *quadgraphs?

For starters, there is NO SUCH WORD as *quadgraph.

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It’s not in any dictionary I checked, and if you google it, it shows up ONLY on phonicky websites, because the term is made-up phonics gobbledygook. I think it was Louisa Moats who started that garbage; at least, hers is the first writing I can locate it in. But it’s abject nonsense, and here’s why:

There is no Latinate morpheme *<quad> that can be compounded with the Greek base <graph>. Any modern English word quad is a clip some other word, like quadrilateral or quadrangle or quadricep or quadruplet, depending on the context, just as flu is a clip of influenza and lab is a clip of laboratory. But in no way is <quad> an element that means just plain old ‘four.’ Some people use the term quadplex instead of quadruplex, but the former was invented in 1946 and has largely fallen out of use, compared to the normal compound.

The real Latinate base element that denotes ‘four’ is <quadr>, as we can see in the sums for the following real words:

< quadr + i + lateral >

< quadr + angle >

< quadr + ant >

< quadr + u + ple >

< quadr + i + cep >

Therefore, if we needed to invent a hybridized Greco-Latinate word to denote a 4-letter form, we’d have to invent *<quadrigraph>, which is also not a word:

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Now, it’s true that sometimes, a modern scientific understanding does demand the invention of a word, and sometimes a hybrid is called for. For example, the purely Greek compound telescope was already around when a new distance-seeing device was invented in the 20th century, so we called it a television instead.

Unfortunately, so-called *quadgraphs are not the only lie Louisa Moats tells. She also falsely (and laughably) claims that television has “three Latin morphemes.” It doesn’t. The first one is Greek. Another example of a modern hybrid is biodiversity, which Louisa thinks is “Greek,” isn’t. The bio parts are Greek, but diversity is Latin. It’s a modern concept with a modern, hybridized name. I promise you, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not discussing televisions or biodiversity. The best part is that these two examples of mendacious etymuddle – along with a third — appear in a just half of a single paragraph from Louisa, in a so-called piece of “reading science.” Look:

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This is how it works: Louisa lies to teachers, and teachers pass those lies on to kids. And YES, I DO mean to use the word LIE, because when you say you are writing something that is “scientific research” and you don’t bother to even look anything up before you make your claims, that is not an ethical approach to professional publications. If it were one mistake, it’d be one thing, but it’s like this every time she tries to write about etymology. It’s a pattern of careless deceit, lying by omission.

How is this “science”? Why should we trust the “science” promoted in this book and others like it?

Also? Tube is Latinate, not *Anglo-Saxon. Intubate, tubal, tubular. You don’t even have to look it up — you just have to think beyond a single example. You know, like a scientist.

I digress.

So anyhow, the fact is that there is no need whatsoever to invent a hybrid term at all, since there is already a perfectly good word available to us: tetragram, or tetragraph. The <tetra> derives from the Greek word for ‘four,’ as any self-respecting Tetris-playing linguist can tell you. Traditionally, the term tetragram has been used for a four-letter word, so in recent years, tetragraph has emerged as the orthographic term to follow digraph and trigraph. It’s a real word, attested, in a dictionary and everything:

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A decade ago, when I was an OG trainer and newish to this understanding, a colleague and I attended a workshop with Pete Bowers in Chicago. He briefly made reference to the <ugh>-not-*<ough> elegance in his talk. Someone asked about it, and we spent a few minutes looking at examples, like <l a ugh> and <th o ugh>. One of the attendees was Susan Hall, who had been invited to attend for free. She had been a co-author with Louisa Moats of a couple books for parents, but by the time of this workshop, she owned The 95 Percent Group. When she stood up to leave the facility, she announced to my colleague and me, “Well, I’m not giving up my *<ough>!” I’m not even kidding. No evidence, no reasoned dialogue. She just took her *<ough> marbles and went home.

The 95 Percent Group made close to $9 million last year training people in the teaching and testing of phonics. Read the reviews.

Likewise, on Twitter, and elsewhere, I have piles of people who have never studied with me, never read a word I wrote anywhere other than Twitter, who deliberately refuse to see the elegant logic of a <ugh>, clinging to their clumsy *quadgraphs like a lifeboat in a phonics shipwreck. “Well it’s not very common,” they say. But a <ugh> is BY DEFINITION more common than either <augh> or <ough>, so if commonality is the goal, <ugh>’s your gal. “But it only appears after an <a> or <o>,” they say. SO WHAT? Lots of graphemes have place-value restrictions. We avoid a <j> after an <i>; an <ay> is final; an <aw> can only be followed by <n, l, or k>. A <wh> is only initial. Clearly, phonics can’t logic. They allow that a <ph> is etymologically driven, but scoff when I suggest the same is true of an <ea>.

It’s amazing to me that people who argue so constantly and ubiquitously for teaching “Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences” über Alles will also vociferously resist understanding actual how actual graphemes correspond to actual phonemes. Like, they actively and deliberately refuse to see what I show them.

I learned about the <ugh> from the work of my orthographic linguistics teacher, and I started writing about it myself in 2013. I pinned an analysis to the top of my Twitter profile. Here’s the first, quite comprehensive analysis I did in 2010: Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 2.50.52 PM.pngI’ve laid out the proof time and again since then. In my LEX Grapheme Deck. In my classes and live workshops. In Facebook posts.

Why use a <ugh> instead of an <f>? Because, a <ugh> can be related to [k] or [g] or [ʧ] in a word family, but an <f> cannot. An <f> has a different set of relatives: <p, ph, b, v>. Again, I lay all this out, with evidence, in my LEX Grapheme Deck. That deck has been published for a decade and no one has falsified anything in it yet. Not One Thing.

Likewise, there is no *<eigh>, nor *<aigh>, the latter of which never gets mentioned in phonics, so obviously phonics really doesn’t have it their facts straight. What there is is an <igh> etymological marker that marks a relationship to a /k/ in related words: eight~octave; weight~vector; straight~streak. Phombies will conjecture at me until the cows come home about whether kids “need” to learn this or whether this understanding is “useful,” but they will never ask themselves the same question about their ham-fisted *quadgraphs.

No one has ever provided me with any evidence, any analysis, that proves that English has tetragraphs. Phombies are moving targets. I ask them for proof and they jump around from non-sequitur to non-sequitur, mumbling about how common or uncommon they imagine something to be, or quoting some phonicky source, but citations don’t prove anything. They’ll lament that the <ugh> I’m positing spells “several sounds” — as though that were an objection to anything! Because how many “sounds” does their beloved *<ough> mutant have? Anyhow, that’s false. A <ugh> can only spell one single phoneme, and that’s [f]. Otherwise, it spells nothing at all. People get really fixated on this, and then they scold me for using what they call an “uncommon” example.

But in a decade of speaking, writing, publishing, teaching, and presenting the proof for the <ugh>, no one has ever been able to falsify it. Here’s what I told my new client: “The thing is, [New Client], it’s not up to me to prove that *quadgraphs are inaccurate. Rather, it’s up to YOU to prove or find proof that they are accurate if you want to use them.”

Even Wikipedia knows that “English does not have tetragraphs in native words.” In fact, it doesn’t have any at all. When even Wikipedia knows more about English spelling than so-called “experts,” well, that’s rough.

My Symposium in the Pines ended ten days ago; my last guests departed the next day. Since then, I’ve ordered school clothes and school supplies for my son, who starts school on August 1st. My InSight 3 Decks arrived,  were processed, and shipped. I still have shipping stuff all over the living room, both coming and going. The wine glasses from the Symposium’s freaking magical Wednesday night dinner were still sitting on my dining room table two Sundays later, waiting for me to make sense of the kitchen and run them through the dishwasher.

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Worth it.

In January of this year, I realized that the Australia trip I had imagined for this summer was not going to materialize, so I decided to focus my energies on bringing people to Prescott. I moved here with my son two years ago, and have marveled at the natural beauty, the Native American presence, the rip-roarin’ Old West history, the charming Courthouse Square downtown, the diverse architectural treasures, and the present-day arts-and-antiques culture. I wanted to share all of this, so I paid a huge deposit on a boutique hotel undergoing renovations and crossed my fingers.

Worth it.

By the end of April, I had deposits from enough people to fill the hotel’s 12 rooms. A couple people backed out, and a couple more came to take their place. I could not have designed a better group, though I suspect that pretty much any mix of my serious clients would’ve had its own special character. Some people who came have only been studying with me for a little over a year; for others, it’s been closer to two decades. No one took everything home from the week, but everyone took something. Lots of things, in fact. The content was organic: sketched out at the beginning of the week, but open for questions and tangents and rabbit holes. IMG_20190727_102429

I am somewhat embarrassed to write that several attendees brought me gifts.  I mean, in addition to paying to be there and traveling in from afar, they brought me gourmet chocolates, fancy paper drinking straws with little die-cut cacti on them, a book about swearing in many languages, a handmade mussel-shaped dish, and a hand-crocheted market bag that I christened this weekend. One lovey brought me homemade spanakopita in her suitcase, frozen for the trip. I did nothing to deserve any of it.

But I did organize a hell of a week.

In addition to our studies, we toured the Sharlot Hall Museum and learned about Arizona’s earliest days. We visited local pre-Columbian petroglyphs and went kayaking at Watson Lake — our three brave paddle-boarders were no match for strong winds and had to be rescued, but no one was hurt, unless you count my stupid sunburn. There was an early morning hike to Thumb Butte. We had this beautiful catered group dinner on Wednesday night at the stunning Foxbriar Inn, and on Thursday we got to tour the stunning 1907 Masonic Temple downtown, its original ceremony room now a photography studio, with the original pentalpha lighting and carved wooden lintels intact. Those who stayed Friday night had an impromptu Friday night wine-and-pizza gathering at the beautiful home of one of the local teachers who had joined us.

Of course, none of this was the point.

We studied our hearts out. We clarified PIE patterns and Germanic grammar, Latin twin bases and combining forms, and Greek formative elements. We investigated lexical doublets and French cousins and we even had a Zoom visit from Doug Harper, who walked us through the suppletive tendencies of the verb to be. We examined the three suffixing patterns in English, and we teased apart differences between conventions and principles. We discussed zero allophones and etymological markers, default graphemes and competing constraints. Over the course of the week, we circled back several times to the replaceable <e>, because how could we not? So-called ‘silent’ letters in general make English spelling work optimally, but the <e> in particular is the linchpin to the whole system. I bet you a dollar that’s in every single person’s notes.

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When my great-grandmother, Idonia, was pregnant with or a new mother to my paternal grandfather, Charlie, in 1900, her husband, Harry, skipped town or went to prison or something, after committing some kind of financial fraud. We don’t know much about Harry or exactly where he came from: Idonia was from West Virginia, but gave birth to Charlie in New York. No one knows where Harry went after he left. Somewhere in there was the Ohio State Penitentiary and a fire. The details are sketchy for me, though some of my cousins may know more.

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Idonia divorced Harry and raised Charlie on her own as a single mother, working as a stenographer and a postmistress. She smoked a pipe. In the 1910 census records, she is listed under her maiden name of Lytle, living alone in a rented home in West Virginia. Under the column for “children,” there is a big, fat zero. This must’ve been during the time that Charlie spent in a Catholic boys’ home, as family legend has it, the same one Babe Ruth spent time in for his youthful waywardness. Like I said, the details are sketchy, and the people who might’ve known more about them personally are gone now.

Charlie grew up with a last name (Cook) different from his mother’s (Lytle), something that undoubtedly marked them both in the Ohio and West Virginia neighborhoods where they lived. When Charlie reached adulthood — which couldn’t have been easy in the early 1900s with a single mama, no matter how resourceful — he added an <e> to the last name he had inherited from his father, Harry Cook, as a way to disavow him and become his own man.

That final <e>, you could say, is the linchpin in the family story.

Charlie Cooke-with-an-<e> worked most of his adult life for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper as a typesetter; the 1940 Census shows his profession as “Composition” for the “Newspaper.”

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He was a father to four, one of whom, my dad, started his career as a Linotype machinist for the Dispatch, later became a typesetter, and eventually, ran the photocomposition department for Peterson Publishing Company in Los Angeles. My dad and my grandpa are a big part of why I proudly use a union printer for my LEX materials. I never knew  Charlie, as he died two years before I was born. All told, he was grandfather to 24, known as Pop Cooke, and posthumously, a great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather now, to too many to count. We are all “Cooke cousins,” even those bear a different name.

*                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

One of the things we studied at the Symposium was base elements that have two forms — one with a replaceable <e> and one without — like the free base <sore> and the putative <sor> that we find in <sorry>, or the <tom> in <atom> that’s a <tome> in its free form and derivatives, like <ana + tome + ic + al> and <en + tome + o + loge + y>. We investigated what becomes of the <e> in words like truly, truth, only, once, judgment and fledglingunanimous, and philharmonic, words in which that <e> is not being replaced by a vowel suffix. We made sense of these patterns by studying not only individual words, but each word’s permanent context in its own family and within the system as a whole.

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Words, like people, make more sense when we know more about the families they come from.

We looked at words like borne and come and please, words whose <e> completes them, marks them as lexical forms, and differentiates them from otherwise homographic structures. We discussed the final <e> in candle and bible and double, and the highly mutable <e> in words like meter~metre and center~centre, switched around by a young Noah Webster in a newborn American nation.

Noah Webster and Charlie Cooke were both men of letters, you could say.

At the end of the final afternoon of the Symposium, one of the attendees, Marie, brought me another one of these undeserved gifts, this one a shiny white draw-string bag with several small, square metal plates in it. They spelled out my name. At first I thought they were typesetting molds called — brace yourself — matrices that shape and hold the punches in letterpress printing. “Oh Marie, I love these!” I effused. “My dad was a printer. So was my grandpa.” Now, after looking around a little, I think that they are actually brass etching guides, used for a different kind of ‘printing.’

Either way, they’re perfect: to write, glyph, a graph, to scribe, to print — all of these are etymologically a cutting, a carving, a punch, an engraving, an etching. Character derives from a very ancient word for a pointed tool. Character is, after all, that which is imprinted on our soul.

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On Friday evening, over wine and pizza, I shared this photo with those who had not seen the letter plates earlier that day. People asked Marie where she had found them.

“In an antique shop around the corner,” she said. “I was going to give them this morning, but I saw Cooke written and thought, Oh, hell, there’s an <e> on the end of her name! So I had to go back at lunch for an <e>.”

It was then that I remembered that Marie had been uncharacteristically late coming back from lunch that day. We got started, and when she arrived after a few minutes, she was breathless and sweaty, her sweet Scottish freckle face flushed. It was clear that she had rushed to get back.

“The clerk and I had to dig through the whole bin,” she explained that evening. There weren’t many <e> plates in the bin, and it took them a while to find one. That was why Marie was late. An <e> is a pretty popular letter, you see. Kind of the linchpin for the whole system.

*                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

I hesitate to write about these gifts at all. My purpose is not to boast, but to marvel, and this includes marveling that my people know me so well. They know that I love books and cacti and Arizona, swearing and all kinds of pink things, local history and farmers markets and France, chocolate and coffee and baguettes.

And words.

I am so grateful for and even embarrassed by the love in these gifts.

But the best gift, the biggest return on my investment, is watching what these people take home from here. They take home what we studied: things that they had wondered about and now understand for the first time; things that they understand better and more deeply than before; and things that they never even imagined. Things I never even imagined.

We discussed several times over the week how so many of our students — specifically, the students of the people in the Symposium room — find us as a last resort. They’ve been through phonics. They’ve had years of OG or one of its offshoots. Their parents have begged and pleaded and fought for Wilson or Barton or Lindamood Bell only to find after years of it that their kids are still half-literate at best, unable to spell English and hopelessly unconvinced that it’s even possible.

You know what I mean. These are the kids that are called treatment resisters, the mamas who never get eye contact from school personnel because they’re so difficult, the papas whose hair’s gone gray over bills for tutors and lawyers and conferences and advocates, all promoting more phonics.  When teachers can show these kids and families how things work in English — why two has a <w> and why one has an <e> — then not only does the language make more sense, but the families can also understand themselves as systematic, scientific thinkers instead of as defective learners.  When I see a light bulb go on for a teacher in my room, and then I watch her shine that light on language for her families, there is no better gift.
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I got an email from Marie a few days ago, exactly a week after that wine and pizza.

Dear Gina,

I know you are super busy, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you again for all the insights and information you shared at the Symposium.

I taught all week, and was able to bring back to the students lots of the new learning from the Symposium.

I talked about the concept of curiosity with a student who started with me for the first time this week after two years of intense phonics instruction. She was not very happy with bring brought to ANOTHER tutor and told me that what I was doing was NOT science.

On day one we explored why there is an < > on the end of the word horse as she loves horses. This led to a discussion on the difference between suffix < -es > and < -s > and investigating the word plural and its connection to plus.

On day two we looked at the spelling of < have > and then last night she went home and wrote up a list of over twenty words that ended in < e > and asked me today to help her understand why they ended in < e >.

The word < be > happened to be on the list, so we jumped into a discussion on function and content words. As she sat happily sorting out content and function words and drawing little pictures for the content words, she stopped and said, “this is science, Marie, it is word science.” To which I said, “that’s pretty much what Linguistics is.”

Her mom was very moved by her daughter’s progress and said to me, “she seems to be really getting this,” to which I said, “because this is the truth of hour our language works and the truth sticks.”

Thanks for sharing the truth about language. I had so much fun this week bringing the learning from the Symposium to the students and parents.

Thank you for arranging the Symposium. I will be forever grateful.

Meeeeeeeee too.

The following lies, which I have corrected below, are from a single table (4.2) on a single page (84) in a single book (Speech to Print, 2nd edition, 2010) by Louisa Cook Moats:

  1. ‘Sky’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from the Old Norse word for cloud. The real Anglo-Saxons used heofones, ‘heavens,’ for sky.
  2. ‘Pants’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Modern English abbreviation of pantaloons, which was also a Modern English word borrowed from French, which got it from an Italian proper name.
  3. ‘Coat’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is a Middle English word borrowed from French.
  4. ‘Want’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is an early Middle English word borrowed from Old Norse. The Anglo-Saxons used the verb willan, which grammaticized into the modal auxiliary verbs will and would.
  5. ‘Touch’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from French.

That’s 5 wrong out of 34 examples of “Anglo-Saxon” words. That is a middling B. In my college prep high school, it would’ve been a C. Not exactly impressive odds from a so-called expert.

  1. ‘Cuisine’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Triage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is also a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word, and its current sense dates to the 1930s.
  3. ‘Rouge’ was borrowed twice from French – once from Middle French in late Middle English (meaning ‘red’), and a second borrowing, in the 18th century, with the current cosmetic sense.
  4. ‘Baguette’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing from Modern French, which in turn got it from Italian. The two present-day senses of a long loaf of bread and a rectangular-cut gem? Both 20th century. 
  5. ‘Crouton’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing, from the French word for crust.

Louisa must’ve been hungry while she was imagining her list: cuisine, baguette, crouton… Reminds me of that stupid non-word test that includes pettuce, hausage, kiscuit, and polonel — because apparently it was written over a KFC value meal.

But wait! There’s more! Louisa is like the Ginzu knife commercial of bad etymology.

  1. ‘Coupon’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Nouvelle’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a a Modern English borrowing of the Modern French feminine word for ‘new’ – it’s essentially the same word as novel, which was the borrowing of the Old French word. Nowadays it’s used mostly in collocations like nouvelle cuisine or nouveau riche.
  3. ‘Boutique’ is not Norman or Old French. The Normans were Vikings, Louisa. They did not have boutiques. This word is a 20thcentury borrowing of a Modern French word, which the French got from Provençal. This word is actually an old Languedoc bastardization of apothecary, which is Greek.
  4. ‘Ballet’ is not Norman or Old French. William the Conqueror didn’t like toe shoes or tulle, so, you know, no ballet. Ballet the word, like ballet the dance, is from the Modern era. It’s an Italian Renaissance thing. Modern English borrowed it from Modern French, which in turn borrowed it from Italian. The word is derived via Latin from a Greek root.
  5. ‘Croquet’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a 19th century word for a 19th century pastime. But at least this word does have a Viking root, the Old Norse krokr, also the source of crook and crooked, which are good words to describe Louisa Moats’s etymological exaggerations.
  6. ‘Coquette’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word for ‘flirtatious or wanton woman.’ So, you know, let’s make sure that all the kids know how to read and spell this word.
  7. ‘Mirage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word. It means when you see things that aren’t there, like Louisa does wth etymology.
  8. ‘Debut’ is not Norman or Old French. It made its debut in the 18th century, which is Modern English, from Modern French.
  9. ‘Depot’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s an 18th century loan from Modern French. The Vikings did not have trains or buses.

This tallies up to 14 out of 19 examples of “Norman (Old) French” that are just plain wrong. That’s a big fat F on this section. Louisa doesn’t know the difference between Norman French, Old French, and Modern French loanwords in English, which is also evident elsewhere in her writing. But remember, this is one single table.

Now, if Louisa Moats were a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, such promiscuous linguistic ignorance would not be a big deal. But Louisa Moats is none of those things. She is, in addition to being a leading critic of my personality, supposed to be a language expert. The Moatsian table I’m citing is not entitled “Mistakes Most People Make” – rather, it’s entitled “Features of English orthography by language of origin.” So she is actually providing baldly wrong examples of the very thing that the table claims to be elucidating.

Louisa calls me “arrogant” and “misinformed;” she says that the things I write are “nasty and undeserved.” And she barks these opinions of me behind my back, on her friends’ personal Facebook pages, where she and her fellow literacy dinosaurs can massage each other’s weathered mean-girl egos. If you are reading this and, like Emerson Dickman, feeling indignation and defensiveness on behalf of your “heroes,” maybe ask yourself why you don’t feel so damn hot in the face when you read Louisa’s linguistic lies.

Not done. On to the “Latin” section.

  1. ‘Pacify’ was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words that end with an <fy> base, this one evolved through French.
  2. ‘Extremity’ also was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words with a <-ty> suffix, this one came from French, where it had a <-té>, on its way from Latin, where it had a <-tas/-tatem>.
  3. ‘Locomotion’ was not borrowed directly from Latin either; it was built in Modern English from Latin parts. Like the Vikings, the Romans had no trains.
  4. ‘Paternal’ was borrowed in late Middle English from Old French.
  5. ‘Maternity,’ like extremity above, gives away its French roots with its suffix.
  6. ‘Hostility’ also has that French-form <-ty>.
  7. ‘Amorous’ was borrowed from Old French, which is to be expected, given its French-form <-ous> suffix. Words borrowed directly from Latin retain the <-ose> form of that suffix, like verbose and morose.
  8. Louisa claims that Latinate words are “organized around a *root” [sic – she means a base element], “many with prefixes or suffixes.” This is a repackaging of the very common false understanding that Latin doesn’t compound, but she provides two Latin compounds in her list (base elements in all caps):

a. < PACE + i + FY >

b. < LOCO + MOTE + ion >

Louisa misidentifies 7 of her 21 “Latin” examples. Guess you could say we’re all misinformed, as long as we continue to read Louisa’s work.

  1. While all of the Greek examples Louisa gives are indeed built from Greek parts, some of them are modern words and were not around in Greek. Louisa also makes the false claim that Greek-origin words are “constructed from combining forms” that “compound.” Nope, no combining forms. Just base elements that can compound or affix. Moreover, 3 of the 9 words that Louisa gives as examples of Greek only have a single base element:

a. < HYPN + ose + is >

b. < a + GN + ost + ic >

c. < cata + TONE + ic >

That’s a third of the items wrong again. That’s not quite an F, but it’s a pretty embarrassing D. Especially from someone who is supposed to be an expert. Especially especially for someone who built her career on screeding about teachers’ woeful lack of linguistically accurate knowledge.

All in all, this single table on a single page in a single book offers 83 examples, of which 31 are wrong. That’s 63% accurate — a D or an F, depending on the scale.

Would you get on a plane that had a 37% chance of crashing?  Of course not, but that’s Louisa does every time she expects dyslexic kids and their teachers to believe what she writes.

You know what’s even shadier?

Louisa lists “Source: Henry (2003)” at the bottom of her shoddy table. She blames this foolish fakery on her beloved colleague Marcia Henry. And while Marcia Henry’s 2003 edition of Unlocking Literacy does have some etymological errors in it, none of them are anywhere near as egregious as Louisa’s lazy guesswork in Speech to Print. While the etymological framework Marcia presents in her work is deeply flawed, Louisa’s indolent examples are entirely her own. Not a single one of Louisa’s bad examples came from Marcia’s book. I know because I looked, in addition to looking up all 83 examples in an actual etymological dictionary.

It’s nasty and ungracious work, but someone has to do it.

Well, the International Dyslexia Association has done it AGAIN: They’ve published a flagship article on morphology in their periodical, Perspectives, and it’s FULL OF LANGUAGE LIES. But whyyyyyyyy though? I’ve been at this for a decade, and these people know me and they now my work. But they insist on publishing lies. In a four-page article, there are more than a dozen falsehoods.

Here they are:

1. It is not “necess[ary]” to “identify and categorize…Anglo-Saxon compounds, inflectional affixes, and derivational suffixes; Latin-based prefixes, roots, and derivational suffixes; and Greek-based combining forms.” (23) This is a false taxonomy, and I’ve written and taught about that extensively for a decade. It’s a lie.

2. The word lamppost not *Anglo-Saxon. Lamp is Greek and post is Latin. (24)

3. The words speller and respelling are not *Anglo-Saxon. (23) While <spell> is a Germanic base, this sense was not around in Old English (duh, because the Anglo-Saxons were terrible spellers). It’s from French, and it didn’t settle in until the Middle English period. Moreover, the <re-> prefix is Latinate.

4. It is false that “Latin-based words…usually affix.” (23) The linguistic FACT is that all Indo-European languages compound, including Latin. The problem here is that the author, and the millions of mistaken minions who cite her work and follow in her footsteps, fail to recognize Latinate base elements that aren’t in complex words. Take post, for example, from #2. Or suitpants, case, class, cup, plate, cross, verse, cry, grace, table, crayon, pen, pencil, mirror, air, add, fairy, couch, dinner, lunch, supper, tube, plane, plant — these are all Latinate. And there’s a lot more where those came from. Latinate compounds include suitcase, pantsuit, briefcase, universe, pencap, airplane, and, in case you’re feeling like dropping to your knees right now, genuflect.

Rage interlude:

For the love of God, why won’t the IDA just pay some college kid $12 an hour to fact-check this shit before they publish it? I’m no longer an IDA member. Haven’t been for a long time, because I got tired of paying for lies. Are YOU an IDA member? How many hundreds of dollars do you pay each year to be lied to? Why are you paying to read the same morphotwaddle and edymuddle you’ve been reading for 40 years? Have YOU bothered asking the IDA to stop publishing lies? Because they’re sure as hell not listening to me, and I’m publishing the truth for free.

This article even refers to the current “research and professional practice guidelines on morphological awareness and etymology” and “word origin and word stducture,” and it has a whole section on “Word Origins.” So if this stuff is important enough to write about and publish in a so-called “scientific” journal, then why on Earth is it not important enough to bother with accuracy? Why is this kind of malpractice acceptable to anyone?

5. Just because Latinate words are “often thought of as more advanced words” (24) doesn’t mean that’s a fact. People think that because the IDA keeps blaring it on repeat, for one thing, even though it’s false. Again, Latinate words that do not fit this preconceived notion are dismissed as *Anglo-Saxon, without the author or the editors even so much as googling it.

6. The claim that “most Latin bases contain short vowels” (24) is specious at best. Sure, you can cherry-pick examples (in this article, there’s six of them), but I can cherry-pick twice as many that do not have *short vowels: sane, mete (n.), cite, note, rule, cute, farmgerm, firm, dorm, curve, and court. Once again, these non-*short-vowel free base elements are all Latinate, but they’re overlooked in the mad and perpetual attempt to cram these square morphological pegs into some round pedagogical hole, because they are misidentified as *Anglo-Saxon, for the millionth time.  Moreover, the example of dict that was given as an example of a *short vowel? Yeah, not so much in indict. See, you have to actually look at a word family, not just at disembodied morphemes that you think you know.

7. I appreciate that the article identifies that some Latinate bases are twins (24), but (a) there is no clue here about (a) what makes a twin base a twin base, or (b) how to determine whether bases are twins or are otherwise related.

8.  All four examples of twin base elements that are given bear inaccuracies. The article gives *vers/vert, *stru/struct, *mis/miss, and *pel/pulse. While the word families being referenced do indeed bear twin base elements, the forms given are inaccurate. It’s not *vers; it’s <verse>. I mean, that is a FREE base element and you can SEE how the damn word is spelled! Same with *puls — it’s <pulse>. The *stru also needs a final <e>, as in construe, at least parenthetically: <stru(e)>. Finally, there is no Latinate *mis — the twins are <mit> and <miss>, as in transmit~transmission. These rotten scrambled eggs are what the IDA is serving YOU for breakfast.

9. “Greek-based words” do NOT “generally compound” (24). Again, that’s only true if you cherry-pick and don’t bother to actually do any research to see if your statements are falsifiable or not. They are. Like Latinate words, the Greek words that do not fit this false typologizing are simply dismissed or ignored as *Anglo-Saxon. Words like lamp, base, music, magic, angel, school, type, math, desk, circle, zone, giant, turn, story, and chair are all from Greek. So, of course, as I have pointed out eleventy kajillion times, is the word dyslexia, which has a prefix, a base, and a suffix. Not a *combining form in sight. Other Hellenic words that aren’t compounds include autism, genesis, biome, historical, electricity, blasphemy, cardiac, prophecy, neurotic, and, ironically as all get out in this ascientific phield, phonetics.

10. There is no *<pt> or *<mn> in English. That’s not what’s happening in those words. The 3rd volume of my LEX Grapheme Deck will clear that right up for you.

11. No one has to follow any list of morphemes to teach, because if you just study words properly, then the most frequent patterns (affixes and bases) will emerge time and time again. That’s what “frequent” means. It doesn’t have to be packaged or canned.

12. The claim that “most Latin and Greek bases are bound bases” is not an empirical claim. The thing is, as I have already demonstrated above, free base elements of Classical origin are most frequently misidentified as *Anglo-Saxon.

13. The word respelled doesn’t necessarily mean “spelled again.” More typically, it means “spelled differently,” as in The Norman scribes respelled Old English <cw> as <qu>.

14. The article claims that “Prior to instruction, teachers need to be sure students understand the structure of polysyllabic words containing morphemes. Students need to understand that compound words are generally composed of two free bases…” (25) The problems with that claim are threefold: (a) all polysyllabic words contain morphemes. In fact, all words contain morphemes. There is no such thing as a word that does not contain morphemes. (b) Compounds do not necessarily have two free bases. The problem is that the OG world mistakes base elements as prefixes all the time, and that it fails to recognize bound base elements. Besides, you can’t have it both ways! How is it possible to have Greek *combining forms that compound while simultaneously having compounds that are mostly two free bases? Compounds with at least one bound base abound! Monday, Friday, genuflect, alderman, amphibian, aqueduct, and so many more. But wait! There’s more! (c) How in the hell are students supposed to understand any of this — even the falsehoods — “prior to instruction”? By osmosis? Brain transplants? Please, someone tell me how teachers are supposed to make sure their students know things before they’re instructed.

15. <fore> is not a “prefix” (25). It is a free base element, as anyone who plays golf knows; it compounds in lots of words, including pinafore, foreword, forehead, foreground, foremost, therefore, and heretofore (which has three base elements); and it is the only base element in the words before and afore. Likewise, <fold> is not a suffix; it’s a free base element.

16. There is absolutely no empirical reason that children have to be in 2nd grade before they learn about suffixing changes. (25)

17Several friends and colleagues pointed out to me that my work is cited in this article; however, just as in the DTI conference keynote, I am misquoted. The article claims that I “cite[] the example of cred in credit, credential, credence, and incredulous, (25) BUT I DON’T. I never, ever, ever say or have said anything about *cred other than to discount it. The base element in this family is <crede>, as evidenced by the fact that the words are not *creddit, *creddence, or *increddulous.

18. There is no Latinate base *<litera>. This is an error in this author’s work that I have corrected directly to her in the past. The base element, as shown in the matrix cited from my work, is <liter>. This matters because *<litera + ate ➙ literaate>, obvs.

19. No, please do not “match prefixes with their meanings,” (26) because prefixes don’t necessarily have “meanings.” They have a force, semantically speaking. As noted with <re> above, the “meaning” isn’t always ‘again.’ If I borrow money and repay you, I don’t pay you again; I pay you back. If I rely on someone, I’m not bound again; I’m bound intensively. The same thing can happen with any prefix. A <un> does not always mean ‘not.’ If I do my hair in a bun, and then I undo it, that doesn’t mean I did not do it. It means that I reversed what I already did. Sometimes prefixes and suffixes were added to words, in Latin especially, just to make them bigger, not necessarily to carry any actual semantic or syntactic force.

20Likewise, do not “match suffixes with their parts of speech,” (25) because that creates a false rigidity. If you teach that <-ed> is a “verb suffix,” then how do you explain words like talented or bowlegged, when neither talent nor leg is a verb? If you teach that <-ion> is a “noun suffix,” then how do you explain The prosecutors questioned the witnesses and the defense team championed their client’s good character? Huh? How? Also, as someone who teaches a lot of grammar in a lot of depth to everyone from pre-K kids to in-service teachers with PhDs, I’m on the record here with this claim: teaching the parts of speech of disembodied suffixes is not grammar. Studying how grammatical categories actually work in phrases and clauses, and learning what makes a noun a noun and an adjective an adjective is both critical and missing in grammatical study.

21There is no such word as *multimorphemic. The proper term is polymorphemic, because it’s all Greek, or, better yet, complex. A word with more than one morpheme can just be called complex, IDA, or compound, as the case may be.

One of the suggestions this article offers for a “Follow-Up and Reinforcement” (26) activity is to have students “Identify the language of origin in a word.” To this, I’d like to add, “and please use an actual flippin’ proper dictionary to do so. Do not guess.” Likewise, it suggests that students can “Find the etymology of an unknown word by going to http://www.etymonline.com&#8221; — which is great advice — but it’s advice that the author herself does not bother to take, as I’ve demonstrated over and over again.

But why though, IDA?

Is this the best you can offer your 10,000n members?



A few weeks ago, one of my wonderful clients asked me for some help in moving her practice from OG to SWI — especially with the more severely struggling kids. She’s been moved by some of my recent posts here and on Facebook about, well, what’s wrong with OG and why we need to change its false practices and false assertions. So see, this is why I shout it from the rooftops. Because when people are ready to move away from language lies like syllable types, they move in the right direction.

So this client emailed me and said she was struggling with SWI, but instead of just whining at me, she actually sent me some examples of her work, of her efforts to really study words with her students. This allowed me to give her specific feedback. For one thing, she was neglecting etymological relatives, and we discovered that’s a space where she can refine her understanding and help her students better. I’m pretty good at helping when people are willing to share their work, be wrong, and not be panty-twisted when I tell them they’re wrong.

Since then, I have seen a huge shift in the depth of her understanding, her engagement with the writing system, and her willingness to bring this understanding and engagement into her sessions with students. She’s shared with me and others some of her study and discoveries, and it’s so clear how much she’s enjoying herself as well as how much she’s learning. Her frame of mind is totally different than it was just a few weeks ago, when she was scared and uncertain and kind of weary. I am so glad she reached out — many people are benefitting from the dialogues about real language that she is now initiating.

Today, she revisited a question she had asked me about fluency, right before the Etymology conference, when I had said “Let’s talk later.” Well, now is now later, so I responded to her this time, and thought I’d share it here, because it will help other people too.

Her original question was, “Do you recommend doing anything in addition to SWI for fluency or comprehension? I don’t know if that’s outside of the scope of what you’re currently doing but I thought you’d be a good person to ask.” Today, she reached out again: “I wanted to follow up on the topics of fluency and blending,” she said, “but mainly how to teach kids with dyslexia how to read.
“I’m not a die hard OG person,” she continued; “it’s just the only training I have for teaching kids how to read so I am totally open to new ideas.” I think a lot of people are in that same boat. Not that they’re married to OG; they just don’t know what else to do.

“I didn’t used to focus on fluency,” she wrote, “but a lot of experts say it’s important to become fluent in cvc words before moving on in an OG program so I’ve been working on it with my students but I would love to hear your opinion on the topic. As I think of doing SWI with my students, how would I work on reading with them? Especially the ones who struggle a lot.”

Again, these are all fair questions, and so articulate in the asking. Notice that she didn’t come to me to defend OG. She didn’t make any defensive claims about how helpful it is. She very honestly said, This is really all I know. She didn’t insist that syllable division or timed drills or nonsense words are really very valuable, or try to explain to my why that was so. She nailed it, you guys. She thought about it, pinpointed her needs, and opened herself up to being wrong, and to learning new things.

Learning is just so beautiful when we let it be.

Here’s my response:

The whole “become fluent with CVC words” is very phonicky. It’s artificial. Reading doesn’t really develop that way, and in my experience, the most severe strugglers, when met with that kind of thing, the nonsense words and the blending and the lists of monosyllables, they get stuck there. They often become just unable to move past CVC into larger words, let alone into real reading.

If you’re working with a new, young, or severe kiddo where you’d do a lot of CVC work for a long time in OG, then my suggestion is to go ahead and use whatever OG CVC words you’re use to using, but study them with SWI. Build out their families. For example:

fat: fats, fatter, fattest, fatted (like the fatted calf, a fatted lamb…), nonfat, fatty

cat: cats, catty, catted, catting, cattish, cattail, catwalk

mat: mats, matted, matting, bathmat

sat: outsat, babysat (it’s already past tense, so it doesn’t do much else morphologically)

at(well, this compounds in atone, but as a function word, it doesn’t do much else) 

This gives you a chance to get the kiddo reading and recognizing patterns besides just CVC. It is rich for being able to discover that a real word family doesn’t mean words that rhyme; it means words that share a base element. This is huge, and so productive, and kids see the difference right away. They really do.

As he encounters these words in the families you build, you can provide whatever reading support he needs. Step away from requiring him to perform. If he can’t read a word, have him spell it out first. If he still doesn’t know, then tell him, and ask him to use it in a sentence. Maybe try to revisit it again later. You’re not asking him to spell words with a doubled consonant yet, but you can notice that with him. Just notice it and say, “Huh! There’s that doubled consonant again!” You and he will also be able to notice affixes — especially the <ed, ing, s> that are so common, and also compounding. For writing / spelling, you can have him ‘tap’ mat or cats and write it from memory if you want, like SOS in OG, but you can also give him a synthetic word sum like < cat + walk > ➙ and have him solve it. You can tell him what the <walk> spells, and then ask him what the whole word is. 

For fluency more generally, start with a study of function and content words. You will learn the basic framework I use for that study in the Function & Content LEXinar. You pay attention to stress, which is different in function and content words, and that practice can really help improve prosody. You practice having the kids read phrases:

Noun Phrasesa big test, lots of kids, the rest of the cake, ten pet cats, the red sunset…
Verb Phrasesmight have gone, had been running, didn’t see, could’ve been sleeping, were done…
Prepositional Phraseson the bus, up a hill, with a big dog, at six, at home, in the way…

Phrases can also be practiced for writing (dictation, if you do that). Their grammar can be studied. They can become the kernel for a sentence that the child completes (and writes, or dictates to you). For writing, don’t be afraid to have the child do more copy work — where you build a phrase together, and you write it, and then he writes it. Or you can give him 3 or 4 phrases already written (or typed), and then have him arrange them into a sentence, then write the whole sentence. So, for example, if he had the phrases above, he could build Lots of kids might have gone on the bus. You can build real sentences or silly ones, like Ten pet cats had been running in the way. I prefer stuff that makes sense, but the thing is, if you go Noun Phrase – Verb Phrase – Prepositional Phrase, in that order, you will make a grammatically correct sentence every time, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. You just might have to make the verb agree with the subject (was done instead of were done). 

If you have an oral reading component, like where the kid is reading aloud, you can do some shared reading, as that helps him read in a text that’s maybe a little out of reach for him independently. If you are used to ‘controlled’ texts, then don’t be afraid of reading Dr. Seuss, poetry of any kind, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, folk tales, or other real texts that still have repeating patterns and perhaps a simplified language. I also really like reading things with kids where they can actually learn about their language, like Why is a Tiger a Tiger? That one’s great for sharing because some pages have hardly any text, and some have a lot, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. We might also read about the history of the alphabet, or the Vikings.  

You can also pull phrases from any oral reading text and use them in your phrase practice. Then, when he goes to read the paragraph or page or whatever, he’s already practiced several of the phrases in it. That’s good for what the ‘experts’ call fluency, which is really just a question of having enough comfort in a text to be able to concentrate one’s mental deskspace to understanding meaning. Because after all, that’s the whole point.  

“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the balking!”

Vowels don’t walk, and vowels don’t talk. Chalk it up to logic, but that silly little rhyme never made any sense to me. It’s obviously false most of the time, and, as my brilliantly dyslexic teacher showed me once, if vowels are “walking” in English text, which one is actually first? Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.56.30 PMAnd really, how in the heck is a dyslexic kid supposed to decide, given the challenges of directionality in their three-dimensional brains?

In phonics, vowel digraphs are often called “vowel teams,” as though literacy is one big fantasy sports league, and dyslexics are choosing their line-ups. This terminology is problematic, of course, because consonant digraphs are referred to as, well, digraphs, but somehow vowels get a made-up nomenclature. Adding insult to injury are the phontificators who do call two vowel letters digraphs, only they do so when they are not. These pholks announce confidently but erroneously that some words have what they call “unstable digraphs,” like create or ruin. The thing is, those words don’t have digraphs; they have plus signs:

< create ➙ cre + ate >


< ruinrue + in >

Oops! Gee, phonics, how embarrassing for you.

Anyhow, given all the bad information about vowel digraphs out there, I decided it was high time for some InSights into Vowel Digraphs also known as the 3rd Volume of InSight Words. Like the first two decks, this one features 28 words, examined and understood according to the Four Questions:Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.42.16 PM

 1. What does it Mean?

2. How is it Built?

3. What are its Relatives?

4. What are the Letters doing?

All of the words in Volume 3 have two consecutive vowel letters; some of them are vowel digraphs, but some of them, like in create and ruin, are not. In create and ruin, each vowel is syllabic, marking them more obviously as separate graphemes. But that’s not always the case! In a word like < circ + u + it >, one of the vowels is zeroed, so it’s less immediately clear that the <ui> is not a digraph.

Why is would spelled with an <ou>? How come our can be homophonic to both hour and are? And whatever on Earth is going on with the <ai> in said? An understanding of all this and more can be yours at a discounted EarlyBird rate for a limited time!

The deck is half done now. I was hoping to have it completed before Etymology! but darn it if being accurate and rigorous doesn’t take a long time! I suppose I could just guess at etymology like Louisa Moats does, or call everything “Anglo-Saxon” like her toadies do. Or I could just copy other people’s work like someone else I know who hired a lawyer to threaten me to stop using her name. But nooooooo, I actually have to, you know, look stuff up and provide evidence for what I write. Imagine!

My plan is to have the deck done by the end of June and then ship them after my Symposium in the Pines in mid-July. The decks are a steal at their regular price of $20, but through June, I’m offering them in the LEX store at a 10% discount. Make sure you select the Early Bird price from the drop-down menu when you order.

InSight Words are everything Sight Words are not: they’re revealing and deeply understandable. InSight Words offer InSights into 28 individual words, into their word families, and into the writing system as a whole. Unlike the answer-factories you find in those silly old teachery Facebook pages, the InSight Decks are generative for study. They explain 28 words and their families, but they also can show you and your students how to refine your own word investigations.

People often ask me, “How do other people get good at what you do?” and my first, last, and best answer is “Study with me.” And for a limited time, you can do so at a discount! What an InSight!


This past weekend I heard from Emerson Dickman, Esq., a Dyslexia Industry lawyer whose lovely and competent wife, Georgette, was a colleague of mine in the Orton-Gillingham world years ago. Emerson invited me to help him understand my claims that the professional development I offer is “groundbreaking, game changing professional development.” So I thought I’d let the evaluations from the weekend’s Etymology VII! conference answer his question for me:

“I love that I can keep adding to my understanding of the English Language and debunk much of what I learned previously.” [Next to ‘debunk’ she drew a tiny Layers of Language triangle, LOL].

“Learned so much — spiked my love of all of this again…and renewed my interest in learning more — Thank you for all of that!”

“You turned my world upside down and opened a floodgate of learning opportunities for my students and myself. Thank you.”

“Thank you so much! Wonderful conference! I hope to attend again next year and I look forward to future LEXinars.”

“All teachers that will be teaching the writing system…should learn this information.”

“Highlighting related letters clears up so many reasons for how/why we came to our current spellings.”

“I loved learning about the connections between graphemes on a deeper level.”

“Really appreciate you sharing ‘the truth’ through all your research and application.”

“This conference changed my life a year ago and continues to IMPROVE my life and those of my students.”

“It was awesome! I’ll be back!”

“I loved it!”

This was the seventh Etymology weekend that Douglas Harper and I have put together. We started in 2013, and now, the broader community of folks who  study with us has a depth of understanding of the history and relationships inherent in English spelling that is unparalleled elsewhere. The biggest experts in the Dyslexia Industry — those who claim that etymology matters and is important — continue nonetheless to make egregious errors in identifying the etymological facts of written words, but my community of orthographic etymologists understands that a word is not Anglo-Saxon [sic] simply because someone kinda famous says it is. It really bothered Emerson that I called out some of these and other errors in the field.

Emerson is not one such famous expert himself, nor does he claim to be one. “I am not a scientist, researcher, or practitioner,” he writes, but that doesn’t stop him from going on to explain what he perceives the utility of nonsense words to be, and then goes on to offer this gem: “Rules will often have exceptions.” Of course, “exceptions” in the Dyslexia Industry are also known as *red words, *sight words, *learned words, and the like, but my orthographic study community understands that real science doesn’t rely on “exceptions” to pass its agenda. Mr. Dickman argues that it is not wrong “to follow an old saw that is neither one hundred percent accurate nor always factual,” but of course, that’s not a scientific statement, and his opinion is just an opinion.

I have a different opinion. My opinion is that it’s not OK to teach children things about their own language that are “not always factual” or “accurate,” any more than it would be OK to teach children things about math that are “not always factual” or “accurate.” Moreover, it’s definitely not OK to write academic book chapters and articles — especially when they’re about etymology — that identify the etymologies of words in ways that are “not always factual” or less than “one hundred percent accurate,” and I have written about this extensively. Unfortunately, Mr. Dickman is very busy and didn’t have time to read more than one blog post before writing to me. Fortunately, he had plenty of time to write to me about his opinions of me, his opinions of my work with which he is not at all familiar, and his opinions of etymology.

Emerson graciously and carefully explained to little old me that children really don’t want or need to study etymology. “Some children may be satisfied just learning to read,” he asserted. Now, I’m pretty sure that the curriculum-pushers are unmoved by what satisfies some children; more to the point, many children will have a devil of a time learning to spell unless they understand some things about etymology. Do they have to understand all the things? Of course not; no one does. Doug Harper said he’s been making The Online Etymology Dictionary for 18 years, and he’s still learning new things, and so am I. Just because I know a lot doesn’t mean I think I have nothing to learn. It does mean that I check a reliable dictionary or three before I call something an Anglo-Saxon word in my published work, though.

Just in case I was still unclear on what etymology is and its pedagogical value, though, Mr. Dickman stepped up his methodical explication of why it’s just not all that important. “Teaching a child to read is different from educating a graduate student (who can already read, write, and spell) as to the etymological foundation of a particular word,” he details, and none too soon, because boy howdy had I been confusing those two things! Phew! You guys, look how lucky we all are that Emerson wrote to clear this up for us! I am just so grateful for that clarity before I go on making a fool of myself studying etymology like an actual orthographic linguist instead of studying it the way a lawyer thinks I should.

Unfortunately, I am really slow on the uptake, apparently. See, the thing is, Emerson Dickman, Esq., is not the first man in the Dyslexia Industry to have to explain to me that (a) exceptions are a thing, and (b) it’s OK to lie to children about etymology if they’re young enough. Malt Joshi said the same things to me nearly a decade ago; his versions were “Well, life is full of exceptions,” after I told him that punishable, passable, and agreeable were not Anglo-Saxon words, and “we work with very young children, and it’s a very simple thing to teach them,” even though I had just falsified that “very simple thing” to his face. Apparently these important lessons still just haven’t sunk in for me. Womp-womp.

Gee, what would hot-blooded, middle-aged lady linguists and scholars like me do without professional men — specifically, lawyers and psychologists — to clear up for me how language does and doesn’t work and when it’s OK to teach children things that are not always factual or accurate. Wow. I am a Lucky Girl Linguist indeed, especially to have heard from Emerson about what a big head I have and how I should really be living my life and studying etymology with kids, right in the middle of Etymology VII!

*          *          *          *          *

I started writing this post about our Etymology VII! weekend shortly after it ended on Sunday afternoon, sitting at the big table in the formal dining room of the 19th-century bed and breakfast we stayed in, in a historic neighborhood near Dayton, Ohio’s Great Miami River.


A Linguist in her Natural Habitat

My brilliant friend and colleague Emily took this photo of me working on this post, and it captures so much about the weekend during which she kept her eye on Douglas Harper
and me in more ways than one.

This Etymology! community is seven years old; it has a history, a biography. The community was conceived online, in emails between Douglas Harper and me, and it was born a bit later in a Quaker meeting house on the campus of a Friends School in greater Philadelphia, the site of our first Etymology! weekend. Since then, we have met at a Lifelong Learning Center in Chicagoland, Illinois, twice, and in three different private schools in Abington, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon. Our seventh weekend, this year’s, was hosted by the Neil and Willa Smalley Children’s Dyslexia Center, lodged in the historic Dayton Masonic Center, built in the 1920s on Grafton Hill, facing the wide, greenish waters of the Great Miami.

Screen Shot 2019-04-30 at 2.11.35 PM

Dayton Masonic Center

The bed and breakfast we stayed in, Doug and Emily and our friend Peg and I, is a big,
old, brick mansion that has been lovingly restored by its current owner. Its neighborhood can best be described as ‘transitional,’ perhaps, as some of the neighbors are wealthier and living in well-tended, stately old homes, but many others are struggling, and their properties reflect that. The Dayton View neighborhood itself dates back to the 1830s, when an enterprising pioneer named J.O. Arnold homesteaded there, and over the years, effected his vision of developing a tree-lined neighborhood full of stately homes, surrounding his farmhouse. That original 1836 farmhouse still stands at the corner of Superior and Arnold.


J.O. Arnold 1836 Farmhouse

It was the Great Flood of 1913 that drove many of the neighborhood’s early, prosperous inhabitants out of their ruined houses and across the river to the higher ground of the Oakwood neighborhood where Orville Wright was building his success mansion, Hawthorn Hill. Many of the old Dayton View neighborhood’s grand mansions were abandoned. Over the years, less wealthy families moved into many of these abandoned mansions, but, unable to afford the maintenance, let them fall into disrepair. Many were converted into apartments and flophouses; our b&b had been re-converted from a 5-unit apartment back into a 3-story house.



Decompressing on the Back Deck

We all found the neighborhood to be charming and rather fascinating, an eclectic mix of restored manors, condemned ramshackle properties, and rundown but still-livable homes painted in pastel colors and adorned with Christmas lights, American flags, and fake flowers. When we first arrived last Wednesday, I gawked at houses as I drove around; Emily later went out on a photo-taking expedition. I marveled at the mixture and wondered how such beautiful old homes had fallen into disrepair. It wasn’t until our hostess at the Dayton Masonic Center explained the story of the flood and the historical pendulum swing between prosperity and poverty that the miscellany of the neighborhood, its quirks and hiccups, began to make sense.

        *          *          *          *          *

The Etymology VII! conference itself had a theme, as it does each year, and this year’s theme was English Spelling. Doug provided the backdrop, the story of Old English England and Middle English England, and I filled in the orthographic specifics. I gave participants a big picture of both periods’ writing systems, and also a detailed inventory of graphemes and their commensurate phonemes. Doug and I together painted a picture of the end days of Middle English: the effects of the Black Death, the printing press, and the Renaissance on the people and parlance of England, moving us toward Modern English. Then, on the afternoon of our last day, I invited everyone present to take a close look at Modern English spelling and to endeavor to discover its patterns and proclivities. What did Modern English have that Old and Middle did not? What could any of us explain to an alien about how Modern English writes its words?

Given this assignment, pretty much everyone started agitating about the effects of texting and other tech-age practices on the writing system, wrongly supplanting the “Modern English” of the assignment with “Present-Day English in My Immediate Sphere of Reference.” I pulled their heads out of digi-speak, and invited them to reflect on the actual freaking writing system, not some fearful knee-jerk reaction to changing technologies. Properly oriented, they did a beautiful job. Here’s what they came up with to describe Modern English Orthography:

Modern English orthography

     …represents meaning first.

     …prioritizes morphology over phonology.

has both productive and non-productive suffixes. 

     …requires a least 3 letters for content words; function words MAY have 1 or 2.

     …may make a change to a base or stem when adding a suffix in lexical words.

     …may have double or doubled consonants in lexical words.

     …may have a replaceable <e> in lexical words.

     …may contract function words.

     …may reflect Classical spellings in direct Greek and Latin loans.

     …has etymological markers that may reflect

                    ~Classical spellings.

                    ~scribal printing errors and innovations.

                    ~historical, native English spellings.

     …spells non-alphabetic loanwords with default spellings.

     …spells homophones differently, if possible (Homophone Principle).

     …may associate a single spelling with multiple pronunciations

     …may associate a single pronunciation with multiple spellings.

     …governs and constrains spelling choices by etymology and place value.

     …may be affected by stress.

     …has more digraphs than single letter graphemes, and it also has trigraphs.

     …has zero allophone markers.

Now, see, if you don’t understand anything about the history of English spelling, then it would be nigh on impossible to speak intelligently about its present. Both Marcia Henry and Louisa Moats make claims, for example, about Old English spelling being somehow more simple and shallow than our present-day system, and thus easier. “Anglo-Saxon vowels were spelled as they sounded,” claims Moats. And “Words in the Old English period were phonetically [sic] very regular,” claims Henry. These facile representations suggest that there was a single Old English writing system, and that it was comprised of an inventory of 1:1 graphemes and phonemes, a suggestion that is — like too many of the unchecked etymological claims these two writers make — demonstrably false.

Old English had not one, but two writing systems, the Futhorc runic system, and an adapted Latin alphabetic system. Within each of these was considerable variation. In the Latinate system, the graphemes <þ> and <ð> both spelled the voiced and voiceless segments we now spell with a <th>.  An <f> could spell both [f] and [v]. Anglo-Saxon scribes had their choice of three different characters to spell both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ pronunciations of <g>, and the letters <c>, <s>, and <h> could each be pronounced at least two different ways. In spite of Louisa’s false claims, Old English vowel graphemes all had two distinctive pronunciations, long and short, and the distinction was not marked in original Old English texts. Scribes in the north of the country pronounced and thus spelled things differently than scribes in the south, so again, there was really no unitary system for spelling Old English. Given the facts, it’s clear that the fawning characterizations by Moats and Henry of a system in which ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’ always played nicely and never left a mess is superficial at best, but really, ‘false’ is a more accurate descriptor.

Tip of the Day: Never believe stuff that people say about Old English unless, you know, they actually know Old English. Seems simple enough.

Middle English was largely written by native speakers of French, so it was even more wildly variable than Old English. The pairs of words heed and headfear and fair, and garden and guardian were often spelled the same in Middle English: heed, heede, hede; fere, fer, feyre, fare; gardeyn, gardein(e), gardaine. Reading even a short passage in Middle English makes Modern English look incredibly tame and — that Holy Grail of spelling misunderstanders — “regular.” I asked participants to reflect on the history and relatives of each of those pairs of words and explain why they all got the spelling they deserved in the modern era. Here’s what they uncovered:

heed has an <ee> because it is first cousin to hood
head has an <ea> because it is distant cousin to caption, captain, capital
fear has an <ea> because of the <a> in its root (faron)
     ~ fair has an <ai> because of the <g> in its root (ger)
garden has a <g> because it is cousin to yard
guardian has a <gu> because it is cousin to warden

These graphemic relationships are spelled out (Ha! I crack myself up!) in the 3rd Edition of my LEX Grapheme Deck, or, as I like to call it, my life’s work. It is the reason I laugh in the face of anyone who tries to lecture me about English orthography, phonemes, or phonology, because that deck is my proof in black and white of what I understand about English orthographic phonology AND the etymology that governs it.

The fact is that writing systems, like neighborhoods, are human. Regardless of the unfounded opinions of lawyers and psychologists, the fact is that children, even young dyslexic children, merit the facts of their own writing systems, and more importantly, the understanding that only facts can support. This not only makes them more securely literate; it also helps make them more confident in their own intellect and more curious about new learning.

Unlike the status quo in the Dyslexia Industry and its advice about exceptions and children, our community of orthographic scholars is actually growing, as is the depth of our understanding. What phonics calls *exceptions, *red words, *learned words, *sight words, etc., real orthographic study can actually explain, and those explanations help us understand the system as a whole. They are also often mind-blowing. No kid’s mind was ever blown by tapping and barking at nonsense words. It is only when we study the story of English spelling and the historical marks left upon it that we can begin to understand the miscellaney of our orthography; its quirks and hiccups begin to make sense.

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