Archive for February, 2015

What Pete Said: An Essay

Pete Bowers, my good friend, spelling colleague, teacher par excellence, and all-around capital guy, has written a capital response to my last post about the search for proof of the value of etymological study. Like me, Pete is a spelling expert. Unlike me, Pete not only is a kind person; he actually comes off that way. Also unlike me, Pete is a very thoughtful and self-reflective teacher, one who studies the art and science and practice of teaching in ways I’m not capable of even thinking about. Moreover, and again, unlike me, Pete is personally engaged with the pedagogical research into classroom practices for literacy instruction. While I am off studying and writing word stories, Old English, syllable structure, graphemic histories, alphabetics, strong verbs, and other languagey stuff, Pete is actually doing, reading, and writing about pedagogical research, among his many other talents and practices.

What this all means is that if I were the kind of person to ask other people to do my research for me, Pete’s the guy I’d go to. He’s the person I would’ve asked to answer the question Jan Wasowicz posed about proving the value of etymological study, especially for students who struggle. Well, I didn’t ask him, but he did it in this spectacular comment anyhow. Rather than leave this essay to languish in the comments on my post, I want to highlight it here as a guest post. I’m leaving it in the comments, but I’m reprinting it here (with very minor edits) because it so deserves my teeny tiny spotlight.

I call this an ‘essay’ because of what ‘essay’ means. It’s not just a composition, not just a short piece of writing. Rather, it’s an effort, an attempt, a trial: originally a verb that meant, as Doug Harper writes, “to put to proof, test the mettle of.” This essay puts to proof the value of etymological study, and tests the mettle of pedagogical claims based not on what actually exists, but on what has been researched.

Over to you, Pete.

Let me start with this…

Instruction of the written word should accurately reflect how that writing system works.

It seems to me that the above is a key default assumption that we should draw on in the process of refining literacy instruction. Like any assumption, it should be challenged with empirical evidence. The field of linguistics has long established that English orthography is a system is one that evolved to represent the meaning of words for native speakers, and that it is influenced by an interrelation of morphological, etymological and phonological consideration. As oft cited linguist, Richard Venezky stated “English orthography is not a failed phonetic transcription system, invented out of madness or perversity. Instead, it is a more complex system that preserves bits of history (i.e., etymology), facilitates understanding, and also translates into sound.” (Venezky, 1999, P.4).

What logical conclusions should we draw if we accept the following assertions?

Barring compelling evidence to the contrary, literacy instruction is that should represent how the writing system works.

The description of English orthography as articulated by linguists such as Venezky (1967, 1970; 1999), C. Chomsky (1970) or N. Chomsky & Halle (1968) as an system for representing the meaning of words that involves the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology is the most coherent account we have regarding how English spelling works.

Since I accept these two premises, one conclusion I draw is that the the burden of providing evidence is on those that hypothesize that etymology should be avoided in literacy instruction, not on those that draw on etymological understandings to inform their instruction.

We saw a similar trajectory of research with regard to morphological instruction. In her seminal 1990 book “Beginning to Read” Adams analyzed an enormous amount of evidence supporting the finding that instruction that explicitly targeted phonological awareness and letter-sound correspondence was more effective than ‘whole word’ type instruction which avoided or demphasized the phonological influences on spelling. But Adams also presented a hypothesis for instruction about morphology. “Although teaching older readers about the roots [base morphemes] and suffixes of morphologically complex words may be a worthwhile challenge, teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake” (Adams, 1990, p. 152).

It is totally reasonable to propose a hypothesis to test. I don’t even argue that those who  put forward a hypothesis have the responsibility of testing it. They should offer evidence for their reasoning, but the scientific community has the responsibility of not drawing strong conclusions about practice without testing hypotheses. A decade later, major reviews like the National Reading Panel and others reconfirmed Adam’s findings about whole language vs. phonics type instruction, but failed to address the lack of research on questions about morphological instruction. As far as I know, the first time that a serious test of the hypothesis posited by Adams was two decades later. We know have three meta-analyses on morphological intervention studies (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2010; 2013) and two systematic reviews (Reed, 2008; Carlisle, 2010). When the 1990 hypothesis recommending avoiding morphological instruction with less able and younger students was finally tested, not only was their not support for that hypothesis, the opposite turned out to be the case.

The evidence we have from those studies is that morphology instruction that has been tested benefits children in general, but in particular, the less able and younger gained the most.

We can now see that it would have been far more productive if we took on the assumption that instruction should accurately reflect how the writing system works from the beginning. If we had, we would have had two decades of research testing and refining how best to integrate instruction of morphology, phonology and etymology.

With this kind of history, I am very wary of the point of view that we need research evidence before it is appropriate to recommend teaching about etymology. Instead, I would argue, it is a much safer position to say we need research evidence before we have a basis to recommend avoiding etymology.

Fortunately, the research has moved on since these meta-analysis. Gina pointed to an article by Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck, 2013). As few teachers and tutors have access to such articles, let me paste in the abstract of that study:

“A novel intervention was developed to teach reading and spelling literacy to 5 to 7 year-old students using explicit instruction of morphology, etymology, phonology, and form rules. We examined the effects of the intervention compared to a phonics-based condition using a cross-over design with a baseline measure. One hundred and twenty children attending an English state funded primary school were randomly allocated either to a traditional phonics condition followed by the novel intervention, or to the novel intervention followed by the phonics condition. The novel intervention significantly improved the literacy skills of the children including both word reading and spelling compared with the phonics condition. We conclude that early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology, etymology and rules about form in addition to traditional phonics. We suggest that the results of the study could inform future policy on the teaching of English literacy skills.”

See the full paper here:


Apologies if the above theoretical arguments are a bit esoteric. The research question is important, but for teachers and tutors who sense that it might be important to teach about etymology, they might wonder how on earth such a thing could be done!

I’ll end my overly-long comment with some very brief illustrations and links for more resources and ideas.

Etymology (diachronic and synchronic) is essential for being able to understand countless spellings that cannot be understood if we restrict instruction to phonologically based conventions in isolation of morphological and etymological considerations.

When we teach phonological cues to spelling in isolation of other linguistic factors, homophones become a problem. We can only assume that words that sound the same should be spelled the same. But of course any assembling of evidence of homophones shows the opposite to be the case. Thus Venezky refers to a “homophone principle” in his 1999 book. Where two words can have the same pronunciations, where possible they will be spelled differently to mark that difference in meaning. Thus with one etymological concept — the homophone principle, we can drop the false assumption that  homophones are confusing because they are spelled the same.

Then we can go farther and look at particular homophones such as to, too, and two. First we see that they should be spelled differently. But why that surprising <w> in <two> for the number? Well, once we focus on relationships between meaning and spelling we can generate a set of words such as: twice, twenty, between, twin etc., and learn about a spelling structure called an “etymological marker letter”. The <w> in <two> is not there as a grapheme representing a phoneme. It is there simply because it has been successful in informing readers that this is the spelling for the number. With that concept, we might be able to make sense of the <o> in <people>, when a question about that letter now sparks us to think about words like popular, population and other words from this etymological family.

Etymology in Grade 1
If you would like to see an example of this type of instruction in a classroom, here is a video a teacher friend took when I taught about homophones and function and content (lexical) words in a Grade 1 class.

For an example of the more familiar diachronic etymology — the kind about the root origin of words — here are a couple of other classroom videos for you to consider:

Etymology in Grade 5
a) I love this introductory lesson by Dan Allen in a Grade 5 where he just presents text and asks his students to present hypotheses about which word might be related by roots based on cues of spelling and meaning.


With those questions, his students begin a journey of diving into references like http://www.etymonline.com  as an everyday sort of activity to develop and test hypotheses about the spellings and meanings of words.

I had the pleasure of working in Dan Allen’s class in the fall. I use that opportunity to introduce the concept of what I think of as the “structure and meaning test”. In order to understand the nature of the spelling-meaning relationships in words, we can use this process to determine which words share just an etymological relationship, or if they also share a morphological relationship by sharing the same base element. See the video of that lesson here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC7brXsfa2I See more on this “structure and meaning test” here:


The first thing for teachers to do before they can actually draw any conclusions of their own about etymological instruction is to dive into understanding the topic themselves first. Certainly one of the best ways I can think of to do that is to take part in Gina and Doug’s Etymology lll conference. Also take their LEXinars. Working with Gina and Doug continually moves my own understanding — and therefore my practice — forward.

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An Engraved Invitation

Recently, I’ve been under some pressure to engage in a dialogue about the value of etymological study. The question was posed by Jan Wasowicz, the owner of a commercial list-serve from which I was booted a few years ago. Several people who are on the listserv contacted me to ask me to weigh in. Over the past 10 days or so, I’ve decided that I prefer to study etymology than to defend the study of etymology, but out of respect for those who asked me to respond, I will.

Jan Wasowicz asks, “What recent research do we have to support etymology instruction, the teaching of declarative knowledge about the history and origins of words to students, as an effective method for improving reading and spelling performance? Has there been a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology? Has the effectiveness of teaching etymology been studied with students who have language-based reading and writing problems?”

So, I’m going to let Jan do her own literature review; real scholars who have questions like this do the research themselves, pretty easily, rather than posing it as a challenge to a bunch of other people who mostly do not study etymology themselves. A quick Google Scholar search reveals several articles addressing the role of etymology in literacy instruction — I’d encourage Jan to have a look at the work of Victoria Devonshire and Michael Fluck especially.

Of course, many, many scholars encourage the study of etymology in literacy classrooms, even with learning-disabled students: Barbara Foorman, Louisa Moats, Jack Fletcher, Malt Joshi, Rebecca Treiman, Suzanne Carreker, and Marcia Henry, who’s on the listserv herself and who, when asked to weigh in, deflected and asked me to weigh in. But what Jan wants is not the opinion of experts who have taught thousands of teachers and thousands of children; she wants “a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology” — as though it is possible to study phonology, orthography, meaning and morphology in an etymologyless vacuum. It’s not. That’s like trying to study lava without involving volcanoes.

Jan goes on, “I have to evaluate this method [sic] based on everything I know – from the published research and my clinical training – about how students with language-learning deficits process information and learn most effectively.” It’s really interesting to me that she starts the dialogue by asking for “recent research … to support etymology instruction, and ends it with her own opinion, uninformed by the actual emergent research that is, in fact, out there on etymological study.

I’m a researcher, but not the kind of researcher, apparently, whose researched opinion might be valued in this exchange. My research does not seek funding to pit groups of schoolchildren in unwitting competition against each other, some in the intervention group with etymology, and some in the control group without etymology, to prove the exact alchemical mix of “multilinguistic, connectionist word study methods” [sic] that might render them literate. Rather, I prefer to do the necessary research to address the very real, non-hypothetical questions that very real, non-hypothetical children and teachers actually have about language. This kind of research — studying words themselves rather than which specific ways of studying words win — is unconstrained by the standard reading-science shackles. Rather than reading science, it’s just science. You know, where you have a hypothesis, investigate it, and deepen your understanding of the system you are studying. And anyone can do it, including dyslexic children and non-native speakers. No one needs a PhD, a lab, government funding, or a control group to study the rich relationships between words.

While there’s no control group to hear from, here’s what people say to Doug Harper and me in response to etymological study:

  • “I hope to be able to attend next year with reports of etymology alive in my teaching. Thank you!”
  • “So engaging — both Doug, with humor and intellect, and Gina — WOW!!”
  • “It was another revelatory weekend of learning!”
  • “Excellent, wildly informative seminar.”
  • “The workshop was outstanding!”
  • “This was fabulous.”
  • “Five stars!”

When was the last time most teachers felt that way about their professional development opportunities? Here’s my personal favorite:

  • “Can’t wait for Etymology III!”

Well, the wait is over. Etymology III is almost here.

So, I’d like to invite Jan Wasowicz, the owner of the SpelTalk listserv, to attend the Etymology weekend in March as my guest, free of charge, so that she can conduct her own research. I invite her to learn what etymology actually is, how it informs the writing system, and how teachers, tutors, and clinicians all over the world are using etymology to bring words alive and to make sense of written language for thousands of scholars of all ages, including many who have “language-based reading and writing problems” (as opposed to literacy problems that are somehow not language-based?). Jan is very concerned because, in her estimation, people who are teaching etymology are doing so “without any research to support this as an effective instructional method for struggling readers and writers” [sic]. But etymology is not an “instructional method.”

Here’s the thing that’s critical for Jan and anyone else who claims to rely on science to understand: while there may be a limited number of double-blind studies on the benefits of studying etymology specifically for children with learning disabilities, there’s exactly no research proving that it is not beneficial. So at this point, if I had a dog in this race, he’d be winning.

Jan, we’ll save you a seat.

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For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of meeting with Doug Harper and a handful of eager scholars to talk etymology, online, in our LEXinars. Doug and I plan and deliver a series of cozy online seminars in which we discuss etymology, cognates, historical roots, historical languages, Proto-Indo-European, reconstruction, attestation, and spelling (okay, that last one is more me than Doug). It’s mindblowing. And it’s hilarious, as real language study should be. Doug is one smart cookie, and, while this shouldn’t surprise me, he has a way with words. So along the way, he says stuff like this:

“The language has mud on it.”

“Latin is in its pupa in the Middle Ages.”

“Old English is like clay.”

“It’s like jumping from house to house through the neighborhood looking for a fugitive.”

“I’ve seen seven-year-olds take to it like it’s birthday cake.”

I can’t even write it all down. It’s epiphanic. This stuff makes me understand language better, know words more intimately. Doug has spent a lot of time with language, and has the mind to prove it. Not once have I come out of a 90-minute session stupider.

We talk about words and their relationships. We talk about the Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug’s website (which could just as easily have been a model railroad or a million-piece puzzle, but we’re glad it’s not). We read through entries together, clarifying their structure. I’ve learned that since Doug and I began orbiting each other a few years ago, he has included more Middle English examples in the dictionary’s entries, and has given more attention to spelling along the way.

I’m not gonna lie: it feels amazing to be part of this dictionary in this way, to have my thinking affect what ends up on this website that gets millions of hits every month, from all over the world. Not because it means I’m cool, but because “my thinking” is part of a global network of scholars thinking on these questions of word histories and word structures. Not because I have influence, but because the dictionary is an influenceable thing, responsive to evidence, informed by this living scholarship community as well as by the deep, well-researched historical sources Doug mines for the building blocks of his website.

It’s so cool.

Longtime readers of this space will recall that I have had several encounters wherein I have challenged something someone — an expert — said about language, and have been met with less-than-enthusiastic responses. The experts responded generally by reasserting their expertise and persisting in their misapprehensions. When I first contacted Doug a few years ago, however, he responded by asserting his non-expertise (“I’m a compiler, not a linguist”) and by being responsive to linguistic evidence laid out before him, even when it contradicted the lexicographical status quo. So, you know, that’s a genuinely scholarly response, right?

This spring, Doug and I are taking our show on the road. After two years of Etymology! weekend workshops in greater Philadelphia, we’ll be offering this third annual event — affectionately dubbed WordStock III — in greater Chicago (Bensenville, to be exact; see the registration information below), March 28-29, 2015. We hope to have — we are planning for — an audience with many new faces as well as seasoned participants.

This year, we’ll consider the question of time in etymology and in language itself. We’ll look at the past of the field, and at its present realities. We’ll consider why Latin cannot be confined to a single layer of English, and how French is unruly enough to have changed over the millennium over which English has borrowed from it. We’ll view the present day language as a snapshot, and we’ll posit a future both for English and for etymology as a field of study, one in which a global audience and digital connectivity will continue to play a role, and one in which rigor and precision cannot be compromised.

If you look up the name Douglas in the Online Etymology Dictionary, you will learn that it derives from a Gaelic compound meaning ‘dark water.’ Somehow, this fits my experience, given that it was from a conversation with Doug that I gleaned the phrase “a holler up the well” when referring to the study of word stories. The study of etymology, and Doug himself, are a lot like dark water. Not in a scary way, but in a deep and reflective way.

Okay, maybe a teeny tiny bit scary.

Come and join us.

Register online.

Registration Flyer PDF.

140328 Etymology Thris with Doug Harper 1


140328 Etymology Thris with Doug Harper 2

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