Archive for September, 2018


Cupcake is in 4th grade. That means more spelling words. It does not mean a more thoughtful or accurate selection of spelling words, just more. Fortunately, we get the list ahead of time, so we’re able to start studying before the pretest. Sometimes, Cupcake has a hard week. Not just school, but she continues to work hard to stay on top of her autoimmune disorder. Some days she just feels listless. I never want to push with word study, but her Mama encourages it. Not only does she do better on her spelling work; she also really listens to our study, really leans in.

This week she is working with 20 words that all have /eɪ/, or ‘long a.’ The list had 7 different spellings for /eɪ/, distributed as follows:

<a>        : 1 word

<ay>      : 3 words
<ai>       : 5 words
<a_e>    : 6 words
<ea>      : 2 words
<e.igh>  : 1 word
<ey>      : 2 words


There’s no rhyme or reason to this distribution, just more footprints from the Assumption of Phonological Primacy. Some of the words weren’t even all that familiar to Cupcake: bail, graze, slate. So we checked in with meaning. Only two words have plus signs, so we made note of those. We organized them according to patterns (graphemes). We looked for bigger patterns and color coded them (final digraphs, medial digraphs, etymological governances…)

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We studied each word, looking for relatives and reasoning through the spellings. We clarified that there’s no such thing as an *<eigh>, that the <e> is the grapheme and the <igh> is a marker, marking (among other things) a relationship to its 3rd or 4th cousin, the , in octave, octopus, octet

Then we zeroed in on the in . Ache is not spelled like other words in that it has two consonant letters between the <aand the replaceable <e>, not just one. Typically, when a <ch> spells /k/, the word it’s in has a Greek origin (like monarch or chrome or chrysanthemum), but ache is Germanic.  It did not evolve with the same spelling as simmilar Old English verbs like bacan (bake), tacan (take), macian (make). The Old English verb acan should’ve become *<ake> in Modern English, but it didn’t.

Why not?

I showed Cupcake and her Mama the Mactionary, which explains, “The modern spelling is largely due to Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, who mistakenly assumed its derivation to be from Greek akhos ‘pain’.” The Online Etymology Dictionary gave us a little more information, which you can go read for yourself. We did this all on Sunday.

Mama texted me on Monday afternoon to tell me the following:

“[Cupcake] gets into the car after school, and as she was changing to go to dance tells me about her spelling. She missed 10 on the pretest… She honestly didn’t seem too bothered, which is great! We have time to keep studying.

“She said,  ‘I told my teacher.” I asked what she told her and she said, ‘You know, about the <ch> in ache!’ I asked what she told her and she recounted what she learned yesterday and even said that the writer thought it was a Greek word and it was actually a mistake! Her teacher commented that was really cool and asked her to share it with the class.

“So here stood [Cupcake]…sharing a slice of knowledge she just learned. Her classmates were like, ‘Whoa! No way!’

“She was just so dang proud of herself. Studying [this way] is life-giving! It’s changing her!”

This kiddo got 10 wrong on the pretest, but ache wasn’t one of them. Neither was eight. Those words had anchors to hold their spellings in her memory, real structural pieces and sense-making patterns with stories attached. Poor kiddo spelled graze right, then changed the < z > to an < s >, I think because I showed her that it was related to grass.

What will hold for her is not missing words on a pretest, or even getting an A on a test-test. What will hold for her is the story of this word, the stories of words, not with some silly, abstract language experience nuance, but in real, structured ways that make sense. The story is anchored in the four questions, which are anchored in our humanity.

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Lists are attempts to go broad, to throw a bunch of examples together without any elegance to tie them together.

Lists are not intended to go deep, not designed or intended to be elegant. Lists are intended to take any thought or discernment out of study: “Here, do this!” they say. “Doesn’t matter why or how, but there will be a test on Friday.” No one becomes a teacher out of a love of lists, though the profession from afar certainly smacks of schedomania.

It’s my job, in working with a kiddo and her spelling lists, to bring sense and elegance and depth to the study. Depth takes time; the word scholarship means ‘being at ease,’ not ‘racing against the clock’ or ‘cramming in as much as possible before the pretest’ or ‘putting it on a poster and selling it.’ I appreciate that Cupcake’s Mama said, “We have time to keep studying,” because things take the time they take.

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I have eight or ten kiddos right now, depending on exactly how you count, and what have means. A couple of them aren’t really mine, but I’m helping their teachers in  mentorships. The mentorships have been a great way to help a teacher make a transition from phonics to facts, and to help launch new student-teacher partnerships on solid footing. I had a great session this week with one of them, waaaaay off in Nova Scotia, with a super cool 4th grader who has warmed up to word study like butter on a baked potato over our 3 mentoring sessions.

“NOTICE how he starts out, for example, with ,” I wrote to the mentee after our session, “saying kinda whatever — *<s-i-h-g> — and we can retrain that and help him notice those patterns [like <igh>].” We do that just by practicing announcing word sums for now. She responded:

“Yes I totally noticed that.  I also notice that you have a definite plan of concepts that you cover in a fairly fluid order, based on feedback that you get from the kid.  Your ease of transition from concept to concept is smooth and effortless.  This work should ebb and flow.  Yesterday, for example, when he gave you the oral feedback to
accurately identify the base and the pronunciation changes with , you made a decision to continue with bound bases yesterday.”I love how you introduce new material casually and then leave it.  And then review it.  It is masterful to watch.  I need to improve how I spiral back to concepts.”Grateful for scholarship!  That was such a great session!”

It was. It really was a great session. She described the kiddo as “half sponge and half Energizer Bunny.” He’s a cool kid, athletic, laid back, creative. But I’ve watched him lean in to this word study. He was prepared to be unimpressed before our first session, I think, but that didn’t stick.

This kiddo hasn’t had any lists for us to work from, at least not yet, so we just work from the language. I’m flexible.

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I have six schools, districts, or administrative educational offices that I’m working with this year, as well as a couple of university professors who hire me as a guest lecturer. I have a seventh educational office engaging me to deliver online professional development to teacher throughout a large geographic region, and I’ve had inquiries from two more entities about next year. In March, I will speak at a conference in greater Chicago, along with Douglas Harper and Peter Bowers.

I also have additional persons and entities attempting to engage me for services that I do not offer, like proofreading, private development for individual professionals who always say they’re too busy to take my classes (but still want to magically understand what I understand), writing up detailed bids for work or proposals for conferences for the chance at a maybe (LOL — no thanks), and “tutoring” (i.e. babysitting) kids without any parent or tutor mentoring or other adult involvement.

People new to my work often assume that they’re the first person to think of a particular question for me. “Is there a book/curriculum?” or “What resource do you recommend?” or “Where can I find a list of base elements…?” It’s ultimately the same question no matter who asks it: “Can you inject me (or my staff) with all the answers so that we don’t have to invest any time in developing an understanding?”

The answer is No.

When people ask me to recommend a resource, I send them links to my blog and my web store. Honestly, why people who do not own all my products and who have never taken a class with me ask me what I recommend is beyond me. It’s not like I’m just regurgitating information I read in some All-Time Linguistics Compendium of Answers and just hiding it from everyone. When I have a question about language, I don’t go look in one place and read the orange print. A Master List of Morphemes doesn’t exist, nor should it, because English has a million words, and the point is to teach men to fish, not to keep handing out lists of 20 fishes every week and having fish tests on Friday.

You want my secret, People? OK! Listen up, ’cause here it comes:


Study other languages. Travel and practice and learn to speak and read them. Get an advanced degree in linguistics from one of the finest academic institutions on the planet. Study with famous genius linguists in the US and abroad. Get trained and certified in the best practices in education. Push past that training and certification and study further. Present at conference. Tutor hundreds of kiddos. Train and supervise hundreds of teachers. Study thousands of kiddos’ data. Keep your certificates current.  Go to France. Go to Canada. Upend everything you thought you already knew. Shout it from the rooftops. Go back to grad school, to study linguistics again, but differently this time. Create a teaching internship in orthography. Start a business. Go back to France. Research, develop, design, and publish several print resources. Research, develop, and teach online seminars. Continue to maintain your credentials. Continue to study words. Learn new languages, at least their writing systems. Study study study. Take time.

If you want a collection of morphological analyses you can trust, I have a few for sale in my webstore.  If you already own them, crack them open. They do not work if you don’t study them. If you want a collection of words you can start with, I have a few for sale in my webstore. If you already own them, and they’re sitting on a shelf, well, that’s just silly.

I’m not saying that everyone has to lead an identical life to mine, but I am highlighting the fact that my understanding is unique and uncommon and not available in some other place. It’s all out there — I didn’t invent the writing system. But asking me for a Definitive Resource just masks a desperate need for a false sense of security. People sometimes tell me I have an ego problem, but in my estimation, the real ego problem is in the educator who believes they have a right to know and understand things they haven’t studied.

I use lists all the time in my study. I don’t make lists, but I use lists. People bring me lists, or maybe I take them from somewhere. I invite my students — kiddos or adults — to psych out the listmakers with me. What were they thinking? I ask. What do we understand that the listmaker does not?

When teachers or administrators or PD professionals ask me for list, I tell them that they can use any list they want. They just need to bring a real understanding to it, and that takes time. If you want to understand what I understand, study with me. There are a variety of ways to do that. But none of them is on some list or in some book that some other person wrote.
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There are at least 4 different <list> base elements from at least 3 different sources, all Germanic. One is archaic and related to listen and loud. A second denotes ‘desire, will,’ but is rarely used on its own; it’s related to lust and lascivious and it’s the base element of the title of this post. Clever, huh? The third <list> denotes ’tilt, lean, incline,’ like a boat listing to one side. That may be related to the lusty one, but its exact origin is unknown / disputed.

The fourth, the most common <list>, the one that we find in spelling list and shopping list and list price and list a property, that one is Germanic like the others, but the senses it has now are a convergence of an Old English word and a French word of the same historical origin. The Old English word meant ‘cloth border, hem, fringe,’ a stripe, a strip of fabric. By the time the Old French version made its way into English in the 13th century, the world was growing more literate, and the word had taken associations with paper and writing — a strip or border of paper, not just cloth.

The associations between cloth, paper, and associated activities are everywhere. Look at text, texture, textile, context.  Look at map and napkin. Look at toilet, toilette, and toile. And bureau.


A list is nothing special, people. It’s a scrap. A strip. Fringe. It’s an incomplete document. It’s a placeholder. People might say that they make lists to help them remember, but in reality, we make lists so we can allow ourselves to forget. No one actually remembers all the shopping lists they’ve made. They’re thrown out, discarded, scraps, remnants. They are edges that remain on the edges. We don’t frame lists. We don’t keep them as mementos. We don’t give them as gifts.

There’s nothing special about lists. But when we bring our well-trained brains to the table, when we study and engage and take time to notice what’s the listmakers were thinking, we can continue to quilt together a deeper, bigger, better understanding.

No bellyaching, just study.

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Technical Difficulties

I had some issues with blog posts over the past week. I wrote one that ended up in the wrong place on the website, and then wrote another that self-deleted when I tried to move the first. I’m pretty tech savvy, but it’s not my natural habitat, so I’m confident that it was my fault and not some technical glitch. I’m still not sure what I did. Usually I draft in a word processor and then transfer the document to the blog, but this past week I didn’t, and it cost me. So if you saw a blog post appear and then disappear, it wasn’t me playing games; it was me trying to move something and losing it altogether. Too bad, because it was a quality post.

To repeat the cliché, Technology is great when it works.

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Sometimes, the trouble we encounter in word analysis is technical. My LEXinars often delve into seemingly esoteric technical points. It’s not because I’m a pedant; it’s because if you want to have a coherent, working system, you need to deal with technical difficulties. That’s true whether you’re operating a roller coaster or a writing system.

A couple weeks ago, I received this inquiry from an earnest and intelligent teacher who’s somehow wrangled her district into paying for her to take *all* of my LEXinars. She’s been studying with me for about a year, and is developing a beautifully consistent and clear understanding.

Gina, she writes. I’m working on a series of matrices to help me work better with my kids. I’m look at <habe/hibe> right now. I came across the word “habitat.” It appears to be a technical term that literally means “it inhabits.” So that would make it part of the word family, but how would you put that in a matrix? Would it go in the circle outside of the box? Have its own box? Something else entirely?

Because I didn’t see this email when it came in nearly a month ago, this teacher nudged me at the end of a LEXinar today. She reframed her question orally, and I said, “I can help you.” It’s not the case that I can help her because I’m morally superior to others; I can help her because I understand grammar and because I’ve studied this very word before. So I found the buried email and offered a response:

“This is a great question!

For starters, I want you to differentiate between inflectional and derivational suffixes. [We had just discussed this in class, so I knew she’d understand, which is not necessarily the case for most teachers.]

Inflectional categories in English are as follows (noun, verb, adjective):
1. plural
2. possessive
3. singular 3rd person present tense
4. past tense
5. present participle
6. past participle
7. comparative
8. superlative

Now I want you to differentiate between productive and non-productive suffixes. All inflectional suffixes are productive. If we get a new noun or a new verb or a new adjective in our lexicon, we will still inflect it the same way: (There were three cyborgs; He googled the answer; That is the phattest blunt evah…)

SOME derivational suffixes are productive, like <-ish>:  My voice sounds so cyborgish on that tape. Or <-able>: The answer to that question is googlable.

SOME derivational suffixes are non-productive, like <-ule> or <-ion>. You can’t just add <-ion> to google and get a noun: *googlion. You can’t just add a <-ule> (node~nodule) to cyborg and get a diminutive: *cyborgule.  No matter how much we might wish we could.

Now, some of our derivational suffixes in English were actually inflectional in Latin. For example, the common, non-productive derivational suffixes <-ent> and <-ant> were actually present participle suffixes in Latin (and/or French). This is exactly what you have with habitat — in LATIN, the marks a 3rd person, present tense verb, like the <-s> inflection in English inhabits. You can’t analyze it as a Latin inflection, because the word habitat in English is a noun, not a verb, and anyhow, it’s ENGLISH, not Latin.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t analyze it, just because it’s in a Latin loanword and has a Latin inflection on the end. We still analyze pleasant as having an <-ant> suffix even though it’s not participial in English like it is in French. In order for us to analyze the <-at> from habitat, it suffices to find another word that has the SAME suffix in it. And here it is (drumroll, please):

< magn + i + fic + at >

The present-day English (proper) noun Magnificat is a Christian (largely Catholic) canticle that is derived from the 3rd person, singular, present-tense Latin verb, magnificat, meaning ‘it magnifies.’ It refers to the Blessed Mary singing ‘My soul magnifies the Lord…’

So you have evidence to show that LATIN 3rd person singular present-tense INFLECTION is functioning as a NON-PRODUCTIVE nominal derivation in ENGLISH words of Latin origin. Both habitat and magnificat bear this pattern. [After sending this I also found requiescat, a funereal prayer (thus, a noun) derived from the 3rd person present-tense verb, roughly translated as ‘may s/he rest…’]

There is also a DIFFERENT non-productive Latinate <-at> suffix in the words format and concordat, which derives from the same Latin stem suffix that gives us <-ate>. In the case of these two words, that stem suffix was used in the Latin past participles formatus and concordatum. We have this same <-at> suffix in words like hemostat or thermostat.

In sum, you totally can analyze the <-at> in habitat, but you don’t have to.

I hope this rehabilitates your understanding and makes you better able to work with this family with your kiddos.”

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It’s a joy to see a teacher even willing to grapple with this level of technical difficulty in the writing system. I knew I could help her — and you — understand what’s up with this word. But in order to do so, it’s not sufficient to just understand spelling; you have to get a REAL grip on grammar too. No fakey-cutesy “Great” parts of speech or lie-binders or silly circle diagrams that don’t make sense. Rather, teachers AND kids need and deserve a real, scientific, elegant understanding of how grammar works.

Recently, I asked a friend and colleague why anyone in our “scholarly community” would accept the repackaged dreck of cruddy old grammar pedagogies as a good thing simply because they have warm feels for the person who produced it. It drives me nuts when someone who studies spelling a little starts offering shoddy classes and hawking erroneous materials as though they are experts, and everyone just lines up and praises the effort because, hey, we’re a community and we have to always be nice and complimentary or else someone might not like us because that’s what (mostly) women worry about.

“Why should I call this my ‘scholarly community’ when being a member of it requires me to check my critical understanding of grammar at the door?” I asked. “Why am I supposed to show scholarly respect toward someone who tries to pass off any and few as demonstrative pronouns [sic]?” I lamented. “Why do people who consider themselves my friends and colleagues expect me to politely smile and nod when I see grammar garbage passed off as expertise?”

“Because they don’t recognize it as garbage unless they’ve studied grammar with you,” she responded. “People don’t understand grammar so when they see that garbage they don’t know it’s garbage.” Ohhhhh, right. She helped me see that just because our broader spelling community understands spelling doesn’t mean that grammar has a good foothold. It doesn’t. People don’t recognize grammar dreck as grammar dreck because they don’t know how grammar works. But, as evidenced in the habitat example, understanding grammar — real, Grown-Up Grammar and not some flaccid 5th-grade facsimile — is a required part of understanding technical difficulties in the writing system. Again, you don’t have to analyze habitat, but technically you can if you know how.

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The teachers who take my classes do not do so out of an abundance of free time. They don’t take my classes because they don’t work or aren’t busy. It’s not the case that there’s a body of scholars who understand this but just choose to “do it” differently. There’s no book I can recommend where you can read up on everything I understand. There is my blog and there is my webstore. People often ask me “where’d you learn this?” or “where can I find that?” as though there is some Secret Compendium for Real-Life Linguists where I go look things up that I then bestow on an intellectually hungry audience of non-linguists.

It’s not like that.

The understanding I offer is my life’s work. I can’t inject it into someone else or refer someone to a Book Where They Can Look It All Up. I can’t make some craptastic video about *irregular verbs [sic] or some putrid *layers of language [sic] graphic smell like a rose. Please. If you want to understand what I’m offering, you have to study with me. You won’t find it in someone else’s materials or someone else’s classes or someone else’s brains. I’m not saying I invented the understanding — it’s all out there, so if you also want to spend 35 years studying language, maybe you’ll arrive here at the end of it. Or you could study with me (unless you’ve overstepped your boundaries with me, in which case, technically,  you can’t).

I’m about to start my 3rd round of Grammar for Grown-Ups at the end of this month. It’s so lovely to see this understanding start to blossom. People in my community now talk about form and function, participles, auxiliary verbs, and constituency, in ways that make sense. Someone emailed me this morning to ask if there’s still room. Yes. There’s still room. You can still sign up. We will be meeting 1-2 Friday evenings per month, from 6-8pm Central US time, starting September 28th.

So come get technical: no grammar facsimiles, no fake answers, no false understandings. Just word nerds in our natural habitat.

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