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Archive for May, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out these relatives: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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