Early-Bird Registration for Etymology VI! with Douglas Harper is now open.

Register online or print and send in the flyer.

You won’t want to miss it.

1-180324 Etymology VI with Doug Harper

2-180324 Etymology VI with Doug Harper

A little over a year ago, I attended a dyslexia event in the Chicago area that had been organized by some friends and colleagues. I drove a 5-hour round trip from my central Illinois home, hopeful that I’d be able to contribute something meaningful, and/or that I’d be able to sell some LEX materials at the event.

I sold one lousy book.

But I met Cupcake’s Mama. A Mama at the end of her literacy rope, a Mama who, like me, had driven a couple hours to be at this dyslexia event, looking for some hope for her 2nd grader. Within a couple of week of that meeting, Mama and that second grader — Cupcake — began meeting with me on a pretty regular basis, to see what we could learn about the writing system by studying Cupcake’s spelling words each week.

We learned about the 4 questions. We studied the 3 suffixing patterns. We investigated zero allophones and etymological markers and relatives, twin bases and cognates. We unearthed phonics misapprehensions and discovered the elegant beauty of a <ugh>. We learned what drives the choice of a <wr> or a <kn> besides pronunciation. She blew my mind by recognizing words like diagnosis and thorough and spectacular. Bit by bit, Cupcake started to emerge from the shame and fear of dyslexia’s challenges.

Then she got sick.

Mama had noticed that Cupcake wasn’t really herself. She was irritable and easily fatigued, and soon the concerns became physical. She could hardly get in and out of bed or the bathtub. Her legs stopped working. A flurry of hospital visits, trips to Chicago, and meetings with specialists revealed a diagnosis of Juvenile Dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disorder in which one’s own immune system begins to attack skin and muscle cells. Over the subsequent months, Cupcake underwent blood transfusions and steroid treatments, a restricted diet and more meetings with specialists. She missed school and gave up her beloved Irish dance. She underwent tests and scans and needles that would traumatize most adults. The whole time her family supported her, with Mama at the helm, cooking special meals and snacks, traveling to Chicago for appointments, and handling the huge job of communicating on behalf of Cupcake.

Weeks went by and we didn’t meet. Sometimes there are things that are more important than word study.

In May, Cupcake and her friends, mostly newly-minted 3rd graders, held an art sale. The day’s rainy weather moved the sale into the garage, but they still held it. They had a goal of raising $1,000 toward JDM research. Well, we were all blown away when their art sale raised $7,500.

A bunch of kids, you guys. Seventy-five hundred dollars.

Cupcake continues to recover, and to get good news. The other day, her Mama posted what is perhaps the best evidence of Cupcake’s recovery: She’s back to Irish dance.

So, in her honor, I decided to get my act together and put out the calendar I’ve been working on for 2 years, in time for 2018, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Cure JM Foundation. She’s having a great 3rd grade year; let’s make it even better with a good size donation to Cure JM.

2018 Front Cover JDMJanuary

And, if you order by December 31st, you’ll also get a copy of Scott Mills’s bilingual Days of the Week posters for 50% their eventual retail price.

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Don’t delay. The calendar is a perfect gift for teachers, scholars, word detectives, and anyone who makes good use of a year. Go order yours now.

It’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

A few weeks ago, one of my study partners — my youngest, a 2nd grader — was working with me on a word sum. As she spelled out the base element and got to the plus sign, she wondered aloud, “Wait, is that a replaceable <e>?” Since then, I’ve been using that fantastically simple terminology, rather than the often tortured “single, final, non-syllabic <e>” or the unhelpful and inaccurate “silent <e>.”

Another study partner and I have been discussing how a replaceable <e> is “silent” in a different way than the <b> in doubt or the <g> in sign or the <u> in circuit. Because many of the possible functions of a letter in a written word do not involve being pronounced, when we lump them all together as “silent letters,” we miss major opportunities to study and understand what’s actually happening in the written word.

I’m happy to announce the first new LEXinar of 2018, The Science of Silence, in which we will delve into, investigate, and organize the distinct structural patterns in English that can result in so-called “silent” letters. We will explore how that replaceable <e> is in a class by itself (and why!), and then put forth a basic terminology and structure for the other functions of these breadcrumbs through the forest of English orthography.

This class can stand alone, but also makes a great companion to The Zero Allophone and/or The Nature of the Grapheme.  Register with a $15 discount through December 31st; full pricing starts January 1st. Download a PDF of the LEXinar Silent Letters Flyer and sign up online before December 31st!

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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.’  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.



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