Archive for the ‘Evidence in Education’ Category

You know, sometimes you just have to talk to a doctor about something embarrassing and there’s no way around it, so here I go.

To Dr. Karen: A Review of Your “30 Tier 2 Words for Language Therapy”

This freely available, online, language education resource is written by Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, my fellow scholar from Illinois State University, one of the nation’s oldest public universities, and one of the largest producers of educators in the U.S. Whether those claims to fame are good things or bad things depends on your opinion, I guess.

Here’s something that doesn’t depend on opinion, however: facts. Not alternative facts; the real kind. Like, for example, linguistic facts. So I’d like to offer you my opinion on the facts — and the fictions — in your work. In the free sample you offer visitors to your website, you offer 30 words for study, and more than a third of them are misidentified. Oops! That’s a 63%. At ISU, I’m pretty sure that’s a D.

Since you took the time to check out my work, Dr. Karen, I thought I’d do the same, so I ordered the free resource you offer on your web page, and I watched your video to learn all about the “magic bullet for treating language disorders.”

Just curious. Have you read any of the research on the effects of morphological study on vocabulary? I don’t give a toot, myself, but I know how much you like research. And vocabulary. I did not realize that vocabulary was a magic bullet at all! Imagine my surprise in learning that if you study what words mean with your students, they do better with language tasks! Clearly magic is the only reasonable explanation for such an improvement.

As far as bullets go, I admit that I have not yet tried shooting my students to see if that helps. But then again, I’m not a doctor, and if you google me, you can verify that fact.

I thought about asking the people on SpellTalk what they thought of your work, Doctor Karen, but since the administrators kicked me out of their club for truth-telling like five years ago, I couldn’t. So I decided to just write in my own space, publicly, instead of to other people in secret, to alert you directly to the following conceptual errors in your resource:

1. You identify as nouns the following words: route and trance. Of course, they can both be nouns, but they can also be verbs. You don’t know what they are until they’re in an actual phrase, but they’re not. They’re disembodied on flash cards, with no explanation or investigation. Just as you can’t tell how a morpheme will be pronounced until it surfaces in a word, you also can’t tell what part of speech something is until it surfaces in a phrase or clause.

a. They will route the new bus line though my old neighborhood. 

b. She’s tranced and won’t be roused.

The other nouns on the list have reliably nominal suffixes or suffixion constructions: recreation, compassion, location, assortment, disability, gratitude. Masterpiece is a compound noun, and memory, like history  and category, is a noun too,  and linking it to memorial (historical, categorical) makes better sense of its meaning, structure, and pronunciation.

I’d like to see the empirical research evidence that flashcards are a better mechanism for teaching vocabulary than actually studying the a word’s structure and relatives, upon which you undoubtedly based your materials.    

2. On your list of verbs to memorize, you offer ramble, embraced, challenge, underestimate, and collapse. Again, while these can be verbs, they also have other possibilities:

a. Let’s go for a ramble through the woods, shall we? (Noun. If a clown is asking, say no.)
b. Embraced by visual artists, the new technology has made a big splash. (Adjective.)
c. Well that’s a challenge, isn’t it? (Noun.)
d. The adjustor’s underestimate was rejected by the contractor. (Noun.)
e. Did you ever study the collapse of the Roman Empire? (Nounity noun noun. Et tu, Brute?)

So, fully half of the words that the Doctor prescribes for verbosis, with no phrasal context to establish them as verbs, can also be, well, not verbs.

Have you got any good peer-reviewed research to support calling nouns “verbs,” I wonder?

Well hey, third time’s the charm, right?

3. Wrong. Of your ten “adjectives,” three can be other word classes, (leisurely, tender, and cunning) and one is patently not adjectival (rehearse):

a. The governess pushed the pram leisurely along. Pip pip and cheerio. (That’s an adverb.)
b. I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender. (A noun.)
c. Please tender my regards to your kindly mother. (Verb.)
d. The garden’s tender had passed away, and the garden grew weedy. (Noun again!)
e. Her cunning is unmatched. No, really, it’s unmatched I tell you! (Noun.)
f. You should really rehearse your parts of speech before you make false claims. (Verb? Word.)

The words that are correctly pegged as adjectives? Glorious, adorable, flawless: those suffixes, <ous>, <able>, and <less>, and are reliably adjectival. The reason those words are adjectival is because that syntax is carried in their final morphemes (compare gloryadore, and flaw).

Can you please point me to the empirical research studies that prove it’s better to memorize three adjectives off of flash cards than it is to study the facts of the writing system?

I’m asking for a friend.

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I’m saying goodbye to 2016 in appropriate fashion: spending time with my family, eating a lot, fighting a cold, and studying word things.

Over the years that I’ve been at this word study and teaching and training thing, I’ve encountered references to a 1966 study known as The Stanford Spelling Survey, by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf, four professors of education who analyzed 17,310 English words and wrote up their research in an article that’s cited over and over and over.  From this analysis of less than 2% of English words and a lot of number crunching, Hanna et al. concluded that English is 67% “regular.” That study has been used as the foundation of so much of modern phonics, including pedagogical decisions based on what patterns are considered “regular,” “common,” and “exceptions.”

This 50-year-old phonocentric study was brought to my attention again while I was working on my dissertation this past week, and also by a comment on my last post which I did not publish out of deference to the writer, who, like me, is a business owner with a public profile; unlike me, she runs a phonics center that trains people in Wilson and LETRs and other shopkeeping packages that I’ve countered with linguistic evidence many times before.  She wrote a comment to argue that the “frequency of occurrence with regard to nonsense words” matters, and cited a table from a 2010 book (which I have) that was copied from a 1976 book (which I also have), which itself was citing an article from 1966 (which I also have), that was in turn built on one author’s question from 1949 (yes, I have that too).

Paul Hanna’s 1949 question was “regarding the correspondences [of graphemes and phonemes] and their consistency in spelling,” as explained in the 1966 article. Twice I was directed to that 1966 article in my studies this week; there are no coincidences. As I said, I run into citations of that study frequently. It’s common. But this week’s two encounters were louder in my head than usual.  My email response to the LETRs Lady was clear and direct: I explained clearly that the “frequency of occurrence” of nonsense words is zero, and the “frequency of occurrence” of actual phonemes and graphemes in nonsense words is zero. The only evidence she had given me at all was a citation of a book citing another book citing an article, right? So I decided to trace it back to its source.

That table (which can be googled) was first published by Elsie D. Smelt in 1972 and has been cited widely since; her figures are taken from the 1966 Stanford Study. Smelt’s table says that “the most common way of writing each vowel sound is with one letter,” and this claim is attributed to the Stanford study as well. But what exactly do we mean by “common” or “frequent,” and how does that knowledge help readers and spellers? While single-letter vowel spellings may be the default grapheme for “long” and “short” vowel phonemes, spelling and reading strategies are not based on statistical calculations by proficient readers. Moreover, while we have only 6 single-letter vowel graphemes, we have more than 30 vowel digraphs and trigraphs, a ratio that troubles the notion of single letters being the “most common” spelling.  Let’s see what Hanna et al. actually say.

Here’s the basic framework they offer:

“These structural components of oral language include: (A) the phonetic reservoir from which a phonemic code is selected, (B) the phonemic base, (C) the morphological base, that is, the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning, (D) the syntactic and grammatical base, that is, the arrangement of morphemes into syntactic patterns, and (E) the semantic base, which conveys meanings in terms of the conceptual system of a language community.” [I’m substituting his numbers with letters to make this post easier to write.]

Two things struck me right away: first, that these educators at least acknowledge a distinction between phonetic and phonemic concerns, which is more than I can say for many present-day phonics resources; and second, that they — and everyone who has followed in their formidable footsteps — have the way a language works totally backwards. Now, they’re talking about oral language rather than written, but the point is the same: you don’t start with phonetics and end up in meaning; rather, you start with meaning and from there, can analyze words (lexemes) into their sublexical (smaller-than-word) structures, including morphemes, phonemes, and the graphemes that pinpoint and reveal them.

In the word study I’m engaged in, we ask four questions:
(1) What does it mean?
(2) How is it built?
(3) What are its relatives?
(4) What segments and features of pronunciation matter to meaning? These segments are the only ones that are  revealed in the spelling.

Question 1 has to be first — there’s no point in knowing how to write a word whose meaning you don’t know.  And Question 4 has to be last — you can’t figure out the orthographic phonology until you have evidence for the other pieces. But Questions 2 and 3 can and do toggle considerably in any investigation. So you start with meaning, and you stay rooted in meaning all the way through. What does it mean?  And even Question 4, which deals with pronunciation, only concerns itself with aspects of pronunciation that matter to the meaning. So it’s the Stanford Study’s fifth and final concern — semantics, “the conceptual system of a language community” — which is where we actually need to start.

Our second question, How is it built?, is captured more or less in the Study’s third and fourth concerns, in which “the morphological base” and “the arrangement of morphemes” is considered. They define morphology as “the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning.”

Oh if only there were some way to make those “speech units” that we use to “express meaning” visible!

Working backwards still, the Study’s second concern is phonology, the “phonemic base.” The reason there’s any fifth piece is because they’re talking about oral language, so phonetics is a thing because it’s actually spoken, and because although they differentiate phonetics from phonemics, they don’t seem to have any idea in the article that phonetics has nothing to do with orthography.

Of course, the Stanford Spelling Study doesn’t even mention etymological relatives, because it has no idea about the etymological governance of graphemes. It can tell you that 10% of the 17,000 words  that have /i:/ are spelled with <ee>, and 10% are spelled with <ea>, but it can’t tell you why <beech> and <beach> make sense. This study knows nothing about etymological markers or why words have a single, final, non-syllabic <e>. We know better now, so why is 21st-century so-called reading research still so married to a half-century-old, roundly debunked understanding of graphemes?

Seriously, professionals need to stop embarrassing themselves by clinging to these relics.

I also took a look at the numbers and at the phonemic and graphemic inventories used by this seminal study. It’s a bloodbath. I am not exaggerating. The phonemic inventory is lifted directly from the Merriam Webster Dictionary, which is important, because even if dictionaries were actually right about everything (they’re not), we’re still talking about a dictionary that has been updated and changed multiple times, including with regards to its pronunciation key, over the past 50 years. So the “research” that people want me to consider is based on a 50-year-old dictionary, interpreted by 50-year-old research, cited 40 years ago, and then re-cited in very recent years, none of which is evidence of anything at all about the language other than what cruddy research practices we have in literacy education.

The authors themselves “readily admit[] that this pronunciation key [from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary] has several critical weaknesses.”  They also acknowledge that linguists don’t always agree about everything, and that their graphemic inventory (which was all about how easily a computer could process 17,310 words) was also flawed.: “Unfortunately, complete consistency with this criterion could not be maintained, and so some exceptions to this general rule will be found among the list.” So we’re in exception-land, which is really not science. They do ask questions like “Is <I> a part of the graphemic option <TI> or <IO> in nation? In conscience, is <I> a part of the graphemic option <SCI> or <IE>?”, and they conclude that “Again linguists disagree upon this point.”

Well, folks, linguists may have disagreed on that point a half century ago, but orthographic linguists don’t disagree about it now. I already laid out proof in another post that there’s no <ie> in conscience — no matter that Louisa Moats says there is as though she proved it (she didn’t). Linguistics is a science, and we know more now about these kinds of questions — we have better tools now than we had 50 years ago, like the lexical word matrix, the orthographic word sum, the mini matrix maker, and the Online Etymology Dictionary, and better, faster ways of disseminating and discussing investigations and new information (in real time online classes, on editable websites and social media. We don’t have to carry around some dusty old misunderstanding like it’s our last keepsake from our long lost Pappy.

For reals, why are professionals — researchers and educators, of all people — clinging to 50-year-old research that didn’t even conceive of today’s scientific tools? Can you imagine if a surgeon or a rocket scientist did that? Mayhem. Can you imagine if we elected someone who ignored and denied modern climate science as President? Oh, wait… Sigh.

Science matters. Understanding the difference between factual, physical evidence, scientific consensus, and the repeated sub-letting of citations from, uh, wherever, something sciency-sounding, is just so critical to everything.

Among the lettery circus freaks that the Stanford Study offers in its admittedly troubled graphemic inventory are a *<bt> in debt, a *<ua> in guard and a *<cc> in occur. In real life, the <b> in debt is an etymological marker (debit); the <u> in guard, guaranteeguerillaguest, etc., is part of <gu> digraph that can mark an etymological relationship to cognates with a <w>: guard~warden, guarantee~warrantee, guerilla~war, guide~guise~guywire~wit~witness (‘to see’), guile~wily.  And as any regular reader already knows, the two <c>s in <occur> are each in separate morphemes. That’s like saying that there’s an <ea> in react or a <th> in hothouse. Big fat can of graphemic nope.

I could go on and on and on and on, but I’m gonna go hang out with my kid and watch a ball drop on this crazy calendar year. I’m not much for resolutions, but I’d welcome resolve to move into 2017 not clinging to antiquated phonics research like it’s a bible or a gun and something evil is after you.

I’m sorry that modern phonics is built on a rickety, outdated, dismantled, misguided, misquoted old study. I’m not sorry for pointing it out, and I’m not sorry for yelling a little. If you were clinging to a life raft of the same age and quality and I had a new speedboat, I’d be yelling just as loudly to save your life as I am now.

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For the last couple of days, I’ve been running into a lot of online phonics apologia about the use of nonwords, nonsense words, pseudowords, word-attack words, phonemic decoding items, and/or so-called “detached syllables,” in instruction, intervention, and assessment. For starters, the fact that these things have so many different names should cue us in that they are not an actual thing, not a scientific thing, anyhow (just like so-called “sight words”). They are not an actual category, if for no other reason than that many of the examples I’ve encountered over the years are actually real words in use in English, like cam, pate, lander, din, rayed, oft, knap, sedge, bi, [P]og, ta, lat, lum, barchan, and a lot more. Some people collect stamps; I collect linguistic scat from literacy educators and I study it.

People like to argue that nonwords are an effective means of teaching or assessing a student’s knowledge of what they call “grapheme-phoneme correspondences,” or GPC. But every single one of these nonword materials and studies misapprehends both a G and a P, as evidenced by such fabricated baloney as the “quadgraphs” [sic] like *<ough> and *<eigh>, and by the failure to even consider the difference between phones and phonemes. The fact of the matter in our writing system is that no G has a C to a P outside of an M, and M stands for morpheme. Once you remove phonemes and graphemes from a meaningful context, they’re no longer phonemes or graphemes.

To a resource, they all erroneously assume phonological primacy; that is, they remove orthographic phonology from its meaningful context because they wrongly assume that it’s primary to the meaningful constraints and influences of morphology and etymology. That very practice effectively means it’s no longer phonology, because phonology — including phonemes and the graphemes that spell them — is distinctive for meaning and it’s language-specific; nonwords are neither. It is noncontroversial that English orthographic phonology is delimited and constrained by meaning, structure, and history, regardless of how that fact makes people feel.

More than one person has suggested that nonwords were the only way to “break” a student of the habit of guessing at words, often in isolation. Well, you can break an overeating habit by taking up smoking, too, and you can kick a heroin habit by taking up methodone, but that doesn’t mean that the new habits have no harmful consequences. I’d rather focus my scholarship on what I can build than on what I can break.

I’ve also heard from a number of people working with “older” children who are called “treatment resisters” or “treatment fatigued” — kids who spend YEARS in Barton or Wilson and never get past so-called closed and open syllables [sic]. They may begin to “read” better (depending on what you think “read” means), but they continue to spell and write years behind their eulexic peers, largely spelling everything based on the way they pronounce it, because that’s exactly what they’ve been taught to do. I’ve heard from teachers and parents of children who read years ahead of their peers too, kindergarteners who read 3rd grade chapter books with ease, but have no idea how to spell or how to “decode” unfamiliar words, so they’re subjected to nonword drills in order to “measure” their “knowledge” of “alphabetics” or of GPCs.


So here is my analysis of all of the nonwords featured on a publicly available assessment called The Nonword Reading Test. The test instructions say “Either a regular or an irregular pronunciation is acceptable,” but no definition of “regular” or “irregular” is offered beyond that for <soser>, “soaser” would be “regular and rhyming with “loser” would be irregular.

First of all, there is NO ENGLISH WORD spelled with the sequence <oaser>, or even with an <oase> to which we could add an <er>. So how on God’s Grapheme Earth is that “regular”? Moreover, they do NOT specify how the <oa> or the medial <s> in “soaser” would be pronounced. Is the <oa> pronounced as in boat or as in broad or as in oasis? Is the <s> pronounced as in wiser, eraser, or pleasure? And how is the child or the teacher supposed to know or understand that?

You know why <loser> is spelled with an <o>? Because <looser> is a different word, and <lose> is cognate to <loss> and <lost>. What’s “irregular” about that? Just because teachers and researchers and psychometricians are generally ignorant to that breathtaking fact makes it no less a breathtaking fact. Context matters to so-called GPCs. Otherwise they’re neither Gs nor Ps, and any Cs you think are there are not real.


While we’re talking about <soser>, we may as well take a closer look at, um, <closer>: in“this street is closer than that street, the medial consonant is [s]. In he’s the best sales closer of the month” it’s a [z] — those two examples have two different suffixes that happen to spelled and pronounced the same, but don’t share a meaning! The ONLY way you know how to pronounce that word is if you know what it means. And that’s not even considering the pronunciation of the <s> in <closure>.

My analysis provides incontrovertible evidence against the motivating characteristics of all nonword resources: That dusty old crooked Assumption of Phonological Primacy.

The CrAPP.

Here’s the list from this test, along with English words I provide that share (some of) the same sequences of letters. If it feels like some kind of shameful hell for you to read through these, just imagine you’re a 12-year-old dyslexic with an IQ of 138. Or really, anyone.

One Syllable
1. plood: food, good, blood

2. aund: auberge, auto, Auschwitz — and <aunt> can rhyme with pant [ænt], haunt [ɔnt], or font [ɑnt], depending on your dialect.

3. wolt: colt, but also wolf, wolverine, woman, word, work, worm

4. jint: pint, lint — in many dialects lint and lent rhyme.

5. hign: sign, malign, benign, but signal, malignant; also hour, honor, and herb.

6. pove: shove, move, stove

7. wamp: ramp, swamp, swam

8. cread: bread, bead — for crying out loud, <read> is both [riːd] and [rɛd] — and how about create, or triad?

9. slove: glove, stove, prove — haven’t we been here before?

10. fongue: tongue, fondue, wrong, humongous, segue

11. nowl: bowl, fowl, snow, now, lowly, bowlegged

12. swad: swan, swam, swamp (is there an echo in here?)

13. chove: choir, cholera, chop, chef, and see pove and slove

14. duede: suede, due, clued, cued, swede, educate

15. sworf: sword, swollen, sworn, swore, word, work

16. jase: base, phase — vase, for crying out even louder, can be [veɪs], [veɪz], or [vɑz]

17. freath: breath, wreath, great, smooth

18: warg: war, warm, forward, wary, argue (there is no English word that ends in <arg> — if it’s a detached syllable, then what about larger?)

19. choiy: the graphemes <oi> and <y> are never, ever in sequence. Even <iy> is tightly constrained: that sequence is either across a morpheme boundary (as in multiyear) or in a non-English word, like teriyaki or aliyah. Consider joy and soy and bok choy.

Two Syllable (so much for that ‘detached syllable’ rationale)
1. louble: double, rouble, boucle, tousle, loud

2. hausage: sausage, usage, garage, stage, courageous, also hour and honor and herb again.

3. soser: loser, poser

4. pettuce: lettuce, induce; petty has a double <t>; petting has a doubled <t>; flattop has neither.

5. kolice: police, policy (some people say POlice), malice, preslice. And why does this have a <k> before an <o>?

6. skeady: steady, beady, skean

7. dever: clever, fever — hell, lever can be both [‘lɛvɚ] and [liːvɚ]!

8. biter: This is not a nonword. It’s a word: “My new puppy is a biter.” Nonetheless, if it were, say, <piter> instead, notice writer, whiter (note the different <er> suffixes), liter, arbiter

9. islank: island, mislay, Islam, mankiller, and anyhow, vowel pronunciation is often disputed before [ŋ], but the orthographic phonology is revealed by the graphemes.

10. polonel: colonel, colony, colon, polish, police, Polish — what in the hell can *polonel tell you about anything at all? Someone please make it stop.

11. narine: This is actually a word; it means “pertaining to the nostrils” or the same as “narial.” Criminy, is your google broken? But also, marine, margarine, alkaline, urine, line, incline…

12. kiscuit: biscuit, intuit, circuit, circuitous, recruit, and how about Jesuit? The Jesuits have always valued knowledge and evidence.

Why 19 monosyllables? Why 12 disyllables? Why 31 total? Only the <shade + ow> <know + s>.

This “test” features the following rough distribution of graphemes, depending, for example, on whether the <s> in <islank> and the <g> in <hign> are supposed to be graphemes or markers, or on whether the <<ui> in <kiscuit> is one grapheme (bruise) or two (intuit). Those are just a few examples of the ascientific foolishness embedded in here that makes a real scientific analysis challenging:

b (3)
c (4, including both [k] and [s])
d (5)
f (3)
g (2-3, [g] and [ʤ] and [∅])
h (0-2, initial only, which could be French markers)
j (2, initial only)
k (4, including the unconventional *kolice)
l (9-10, including *polonel. Honestly.)
m (1)
n (9)
p (4, initial only)
r (2, initial only)
s (8-9, most of which have multiple possible pronunciations)
t (5, including <tt>)
v (4, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
w (3-4, initial or following <s>)
ch (1, initial only)
th (1, final only)
gue (1, or maybe it’s a <g> followed by a <ue>, as in argue, or a <g> followed by a <u> and an <e>, as in segue. Who knows?)
That’s 17 of 20 single-letter consonant graphemes (x, y, and z didn’t rank), two digraphs (out of more than two dozen), and whatever the heck <gue> is supposed to be. Why are <n> and <l> — which have a single phonemic association — as important as <s>, or more important than <c> or <ch>, which all have multiple pronunciations?
I so want to cuss right now. FFS: the middle F stands for Fonics, though.
a     (4-5)
e     (3)
i      (8)
o     (8-9, including whatever the hell is up with *polonel)
u     (0-2, depending on whether the <u> in *duede or in *fongue is a grapheme or not)
y     (2)
ar   (2)
or   (1)
er   (3)
au   (2)
ea   (3)
oi    (1)
oo   (1)
ou   (1)
ow   (1)
ue    (0-1)
ui    (0-1)
Final non-syllabic <e> (10, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
This includes 5 or all 6 of the single-letter vowel graphemes, but <i> and <o> are featured 2-3 times as much as <a> and <e>. It also includes three of many rhotic vowel spellings (why <or> but not <oar>, <ore>, <oor>, or <our>, which can all spell [ɔɹ]?) It also includes 6-8 vowel digraphs (out of around 30) and zero vowel trigraphs (we have two). This doesn’t even include half of the orthography’s vowel graphemes, the vast majority of which are digraphs. You know why <feat> has an <ea> and <feet> has a <ee>? I can give you at least two good reasons for each word. And they make total sense.

How is this nonword GPC inventory in any way representative of any kind of coherent “knowledge” about graphemes, phonemes, or their alleged correspondences? It’s just not. Whoever slapped it together — as with every single nonword resource I’ve ever seen, used, or recently investigated — has no idea that <w> can mark the phonology of a subsequent <a> or <o>, or that an <ove> rime has multiple possible pronunciations. I can think of at least three good reasons why <move> is spelled with an <o>; nonwords can’t think of a single one.

As my good and wise friend and colleague says, if a child writes *<dun> instead of <done>, you have all the information you need that he already owns the CrAPP concept of GPCs, and that it’s already doing its damage.

Can anyone offer any explanation that makes this kind of nonsense anything other than a sadistic but nonlethal method of collecting meaningless data about meaningless “knowledge” about meaningless “patterns”? I welcome any and all nonsense word measures. I guarantee you I can find you massive problems with any one of them.
Ighm aul ierse. Doar’z oapon.

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Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

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As my last post went up and was seen by the world of LEX readers, I was excited to see 120 hits in a day. That seemed like a lot of people. But compared to the American Educator‘s maelstrom of 900,000 readers, my little blog isn’t even a bathtub eddy. The journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which published the article I critiqued last time, regularly has nearly two million eyes fixed upon it. And the article in question is loaded, linked, and recommended on hundreds more Web pages.

The article has likely been read by millions of people.

Now, I’m thrilled that there’s a growing interest in spelling and spelling instruction that’s more than just memorize-and-test. I’m pleased that the article gets a lot right: English orthography concerns word structure and word histories, not just sounds. But the article is saturated with so much linguistic error that, as it’s gone fractal out there, it’s formed its own whole galaxy of teachers, tutors, speech pathologists, language therapists, curriculum developers, administrators, and others, who have a muddled understanding of how both English spelling and etymology actually work. In a world of instant access and free PDFs online, these experts’ errors have become viral juggernauts in both academia and the blogosphere. They’re scattered like feathers on the wind.

Let’s trace just one of the article’s errors — a mere typo, the one that’s easiest to trace — and see where it goes. As you know if you read Simply Put: Part I, the article in question begins with the following sentence:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

But, as my students and I learned, Webster was born in 1758, and would only have been 14 or 15 in 1773. In fact, in 1773, the young Noah was studying Greek and Latin with a Hartford pastor, in preparation for his entry into Yale the following year. So where did the article’s authors get their bad information? They give the citation in the following endnote:

Cited in Richard L. Venezky, “From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt,” in Cognitive Processes in Spelling, ed. Uta Firth (London: Academic Press, 1980), 9-30.

Okay, so the Great Big Spelling Expert authors cite Venezky, who cited Webster. When I check the Venezky source cited, however, I find this:

So Venezky got it right. Since the late linguist counted a copy of the 1783 text in his personal collection (donated to Stanford), it looks like he actually consulted the original. Venezky also cites, in the same article, another pearl of wisdom from the pen of Mr. Webster, but references it as “Webster, 1783/1968, p. 11.”  This refers, of course, to a 1968 reprint of the original 1783 work. But it’s clear from his bibliography that the two sources are one and the same.

So, an eighteenth-century lexicographer / grammarian writes something down, an opinion, really, a characterization. Not a stone-cold fact or a first-time discovery, but an argument. He gets cited by some linguist just under 200 years later, in the late twentieth century. Then the twentieth-century linguist gets cited 20-some years later, in the twenty-first century, but incorrectly. (It’s all so exciting! Literally!)

Then what happens?

Then the error is reproduced and gets a foothold in print and digital media, in scholarly works and casual websites alike. Now, clearly the twenty-first century Spelling Experts simply executed a typo, and no one — not them, not their preliminary readers, not the journal’s editors — no one thought to double-check the date, or the original source, a citation re-cited, before sending it to press. No big deal, right? Typos happen all the time. They’re not actually real errors, just a simple mistake.

Mmm, maybe not.

The spelling article was originally published in American Educator in late 2008. Since then, in just three years, it’s been made freely available not only on American Educator‘s website, but also on literally hundreds of others, including several outside the U.S. In addition to the 900,000-strong readership of the journal, the freestanding article itself has easily seen hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more readers. And those readers have shared the article’s content uncritically with others: colleagues, college students, parents, and children.

This one single 1773 error alone is far more easily locatable than all the linguistic misapprehensions, and I found it in several diverse places:

*on this blog, which was reposted here

*in this professional association newsletter (Spring 2009)

*in this dissertation (A)

*in this dissertation (B) too

*in this book on cognitive abilities in older adults, and even

*in Estonian, on this website, whence Google will re-translate the quotation back into a garbled “spelling is based on reading and writing, the largest piece of jewelry.” Ha!

So the error’s got traction.

Interestingly enough, the “ornament of writing” quotation doesn’t appear in every edition of Webster’s speller — over more than a century, this enormously popular book has come out in multiple editions — over a hundred in Webster’s lifetime alone. But not all of them have that line. Take, for example, the 1793 edition, which is digitized here. Within just 10 years, that line had disappeared from the speller. Known over time by different names, Webster’s text was hugely popular, at one point the best-selling book in all of North America. It was originally published in 1783 (not 1773) as the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the other two volumes were a grammar and a reader, respectively), and changed names over time, including The American Spelling Book and The Elementary Spelling Book, but best known as the Blue-Backed Speller (I’ve also seen Blue Back Speller in several searches). In its multiple editions and reprints over more than a century, the speller included a variety of prefaces, introductions, commentaries, advertisements, and testimonials.

The “foundation of reading” quotation does not appear in the 1807 edition of the book, then called The American Spelling Book. But that doesn’t stop one of the Spelling Expert authors from citing it indirectly in a 2005 article, where he attributes the quotation to Webster “as early as 1807.” While it’s not a lie — I mean, clearly Webster did say it as early as that — why not just get the citation right and check an original source? Didn’t we all learn in college to check original sources whenever possible? The Interwebs were around by 2005 — it wouldn’t have taken long to figure out when and where Webster wrote this oh-so-beloved quotation. Since the author offers no citation reference for this “as early as” information, however, it’s impossible to tell why he picked that particular year. It betrays a scholarship that thinks Webster is important enough to quote, but not to actually study.

Webster was, in fact, one interesting guy, as we might expect. As a child, he received his education largely from his mother; he found his one-room schoolhouse teachers to be pious and illiterate dullards, and his adult desire was to see well-trained teachers in every American classroom. In fact, he himself wrote of his speller that its rules and guidelines “are rather designed for the master [teacher] than for the scholar [student]; for if all instructors pronounced words with correctness and uniformity, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of pronunciation” (found in an early nineteenth-century edition, digitized here). While I don’t get too moved by Webster’s orthoepy or syllable division or his fairly narrow focus on a single American English, I can get down with the idea of well-trained teachers, hence my complaints about shoddy scholarship in education journals and elsewhere. Indeed, if all instructors — or all Spelling Experts — approached word structures and histories with correctness and discipline, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of scholarship.

Now wait just a minute. Aren’t those awfully strong words, for just a typo? Shoddy? Vicious habits? Shouldn’t I just gear down?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources that pass along the 1773 error. Doing so myself convinced me even further of the need for improved rigor in spelling scholarship. When scholars simply cite, cite, cite, rather than to seek evidence themselves (I already wrote about that here), they’re also likely to blindly trust that what they cite must be correct, without questioning, interrogating, or verifying their sources’ claims. Folks just really trust these Spelling Experts, and they’ll take what they say without checking it further. This blog didn’t give any source for the faulty citation until I asked for one; while it claims to be a “linguistic” site, and refers to linguistics as the “scientific study” of language, the blog itself is decidedly casual. That’s to be expected in the world of weblogs, I suppose.

So let’s go to the other end of things. In a book chock-full of facts, figures, and statistics, a book claiming to “focus on research foundations,” a book published by Springer Science and Business Media, the authors of Chapter 10 trot out the erroneous 1773 claim, and don’t offer any citation for it. When we read their text, we’re just supposed to take their word that Webster said what he said, but in 1773. Written, then cited, then cited again, then cited again, and with each citation, it moves further away from its source, further away from real scholarship. These authors do cite the Spelling Experts’ article a couple of sentences later, so I can be certain that’s where they got the error.

Let’s also consider how the two doctoral dissertations cite Webster, just for kicks. As a doctoral student myself, I know how hard doctoral students work. I know how much detail goes into preparing a dissertation, including gathering appropriate copyright information, cross-referencing works cited, and dotting <i>s and crossing <t>s, so I was (am) troubled to see these two dissertations show evidence of some scholarly sloppiness.

In the first dissertation, the author (A) attributes the Webster quotation thusly:

In 1773, Noah Webster suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 1989, p. 12).

She also mentions Venezky 1989 in the very first sentence of her abstract. When I check her bibliography, however, the only Venezky publication listed is Venezky, R.L. (1999), The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford. Sigh. I check my copy of Venezky 1999 for the Webster quotation, and it’s not in there, on page 12 or anywhere else. What is in there, however, is a four-page biography of Noah Webster, including his 1758 birthdate and his 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I. In fact, reading Venezky was the reason my students had an inkling that 1773 was off.

I also checked to see what Venezky had published in 1989. He doesn’t refer to any 1989 work in his own bibliography, and the only thing I could find that Venezky authored solo and published in 1989 was a book review that was published on pages 89-92 of the American Journal of Education. While I don’t have a copy of that source to see if the quotation is in it or not, I can tell that it has no page 12. Ultimately, I’ll never know where the dissertation’s author got that citation. Fortunately, dissertations are not known for being widely read. Perhaps the erroneous buck will stop here.

But there are a few other bucks out there. The second dissertation (B) has its own citation problems. In a totally undergrad-level move, the author closely paraphrases the Spelling Experts’ article. Here’s what the article’s first paragraph says:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.” He was right. Good spelling is critical for literacy, and it makes writing much easier. . . [S]pelling instruction underpins reading success . . . As children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.

And the dissertation’s first paragraph says this (with most of the sources removed to make the reading easier):

In 1773, Noah Webster correctly suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 2000). Good spelling ability is critical to the reading process, as is reading to spelling. . . As children’s knowledge of spelling increases, their knowledge of words improves; thus, reading and writing become not only easier but interconnected (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).

Now, while this dissertation does cite the Spelling Experts, she doesn’t credit them with the Webster quotation; rather, she credits that to Venezky 2000.  So I check her bibliography, and I find Venezky 1993, which she also cites in the text, and Venezky, R. L. (2000). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press. But the book has just one publication date, and it’s 1999, not 2000. Double sigh. Venezky did publish an article in 2000 (“The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction” in Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, Issue 1), but the Webster quotation doesn’t make an appearance. Webster is mentioned in it, however: “Noah Webster published his first speller in 1783” (24); once again, Venezky gets it right.

One of my students noted that the Spelling Experts claimed a collective “eight decades of experience helping preservice and inservice teachers improve their instruction in spelling, reading, and writing” (page 6). “You’d think,” said my student, “that in 80 years they would’ve had plenty of time to check their facts.” We all had a good chuckle, and I had to admit that my student had come by his spelling snark honestly.

As I detailed in my last post, I tried to guide my students toward epistemological rigor and accuracy. This experience made the reasons behind my nagging crystal clear. The point is never the snark: it’s the call to a higher standard for scholarship in the field. These authors are prolific, and have their hand in published spelling curricula, as well as the “research” base it relies on. I’ve written about other linguistic errors in some of their other writings, too. One of them says in that same 2005 article that <hear> is the base element of <rehearsal>; it isn’t — it’s <hearse>, like the funeral car, and here’s the proof. Another says in this book that <tube> is Anglo-Saxon. Nope and nope. I could go on. And I probably will.

As I’ve done a little research for my dissertation into Noah Webster’s work, I realize how much it has permeated literacy instruction in the U.S., for better and for worse. The fixation on syllable division, the focus on word lists, the assumption that pronunciation is the goal of orthography, the notion that there is a single American Standard English, and even that persistent and careless assertion that <tion> is a suffix, which it’s not (if you’re not convinced, here’s a proof, in the comments) — all these are traceable to the perseverance of Webster’s works in American classrooms. Popular publications — publications that get widely circulated and used over and over again — become part of the common knowledge out there.

This is why I care about the errors in the Spelling Experts’ article. It’s so widely read. It’s been posted and reposted, passed along, and it is still frequently and proudly cited, including by the authors themselves. Now, arguably, no one’s going to suffer too much from seeing the wrong date on a Noah Webster quotation; it’s unlikely to destroy someone’s conceptual foundations about language, history, spelling, and writing. It’s not evidence of anything except one famous man’s opinion. But if an innocuous error like getting a date wrong can have such far-reaching consequences in both scholarship and popular culture, what about the conceptual errors, like assuming that all short, common words are from Old English (gym class, anyone?), or assuming that all words from Latin are “sophisticated” (cup or pen, anyone?), or modeling etymology as something that can be guessed at? What are the effects of the wide dissemination of historical and linguistic error? I can’t help but wonder how far that article — and its errors — will reach a hundred years hence.

Time to get my readership numbers up!

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This past fall, I attended the annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), as I have nearly every fall for the past dozen years. I was astounded and delighted by the number of sessions — including two of my own — dedicated to spelling and/or morphology.

Along with some colleagues, I attended a day-long symposium on spelling on the first day of the conference, entitled “Spelling: Development, Assessment, and Instruction.” In order to attend the conference, I had canceled one day of the college course I was teaching in English orthography, but I had assigned my students an article co-authored in 2008 by three of the symposium’s five panelists and a fourth author. I had asked my college students to prepare notes on the article for our class that would reconvene the Monday after the conference. That article was referred to several times during the symposium, and I was eager to see what my students would learn and discover in their own readings.

This post details what my class and I learned that week.

My colleagues and I greatly enjoyed the symposium overall, and I was eager to go back and tell my students what I had heard. The panelists, widely known as the best spelling researchers Science-Based Reading has to offer, urged the inclusion of morphology and etymology in any consideration of English orthography as critical. I was pleased to see the discussion move beyond the phonology that is typically the primary consideration in literacy instruction circles. But perhaps my favorite part was when one panelist told a story from her own past, referring to herself as a then “hot-blooded grad student.” She then encouraged the “hot-blooded grad students” in the audience to speak up, because they (we) often have perspectives that the field needs to hear.

This post details a few things that this “hot-blooded grad student” thinks the broader field needs to hear.

First, I was dismayed that the day’s last panelist, a writing instruction researcher, repeatedly referred to spelling as a “lower-level skill,” as though it were the linguistic equivalent of learning to eat with a fork. This panelist was especially disappointing after her colleagues and an audience of several hundred had spent the previous five hours exploring the ways in which English spelling is rich, structured, and captivating — the antithesis of both “lower-level” and a mere single “skill.” Moreover, for a researcher that spent 90 minutes presenting quantitative data, research statistics, effect sizes, and other very important sciencey things, she sure felt comfortable presenting spelling as a “lower-level skill” without offering one ounce of evidence in support of such a characterization. I appreciated having the opportunity to address this gross misrepresentation during the Q&A session, and I encourage IDA, its panelists, and its audience to pay careful attention to the kinds of false messages that even reading scientists promote about spelling.

This post details some of those controvertible messages about spelling.

Second, after the session, I approached one panelist to address a statement he made regarding the suffixes <able> and <ible>. During the Q&A, he had claimed that “we add <ible> to Latin roots, and <able> to Anglo‐Saxon [Old English] base words like readable and passable.” This is not an uncommon assertion, and one that I heard more than once at the IDA conference; it is one of those messages that gets repeatedly repeated over and over again and again in spite of running counter to the evidence. In fact, I had also previously encountered it in the article authored by some of these panelists that I had assigned to my class. Here’s how I wrote about this encounter with this panelist for a seminar paper on orthographic fact and affect:

While I had previously encountered and critiqued this line of thinking in their article, I had by no means intended to raise it in their conference session. However, because the Spelling Expert himself reiterated the faulty claim — and because his co-panelist had thrown down the gauntlet to the hot‐blooded grad students (HBGSs) in the audience — I girded myself for orthographic battle. My heart raced as I approached the podium where the Expert still stood, gathering his papers. My face felt hot. I approached him and introduced myself, including my HBGS status. I showed him where I had jotted down his claim about readable and passable, and informed him straightforwardly that passable is neither Anglo nor Saxon, but French.

“Well, life is full of exceptions,” he quipped, spelling expertise intact.

“Be that as it may,” I answered, “the writing system is not. Let me show you.” I proceeded to explain that the <navig> in navigable is Latin, as is the <punish> in punishable that he cites in his article. In fact, I explained, the suffixes <able> and <ible> are themselves Latin, and didn’t exist in Old English. They are variant spellings of the same suffix, and as such, could not possibly have different languages of origin.

“Well,” he intoned as though to a novice, “we work with very young children, and it’s a very simple thing to teach them that when you take off the /әbl/ and you have a whole word, it will be spelled <able>.” He held firm to his ideologic, solidly confident in his Spelling Expertise. Apparently, according to this ideologic, very young children need what’s simple, regardless of whether it’s accurate. Here, the rhetoric of spelling as “simple,” basic, and elementary surfaces again.

“So if <able> is always added to a whole word, how do you explain sensible and responsible?” I asked. “Those both have <ible>, but their stems are whole, freestanding words.”

“I’d have to check,” he said, “but I think those are Latin.” While my heart was no longer pounding, my skin seemed to prickle with the eagerness of fact.

“They are Latin,” I reassured him. “But so are navigable and punishable. You can look them up.” It was at this point that I saw this Spelling Expert become destabilized. He was speechless. He didn’t move toward or away from me; he made no move to end the conversation. But he didn’t know what to say. He no longer had a response. I had finally succeeded in interjecting factual evidence in between him and his belief system.

I then suggested to the panelist that it’s really not acceptable to teach children things that are demonstrably false, regardless of how simple the things and how young the children. I also told him that I was teaching a university class on English orthography, in which my students has been assigned the article he had co-authored for our class on the Monday following the conference. Since these panelist-authors collectively make the same claim about <able> and <ible> in the article, I told this panelist that I had asked my students to read the article critically, and that I would share their discoveries and comments after our course ended. He indicated that he would be amenable to receiving their feedback.

This post details my students’ feedback on the article.

1. The article claims: “In 1773, Noah Webster stated that ‘spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

Student response: “Noah Webster was born in 1758. Was he really only 15 when he said that?”

What we learned: Noah Webster was indeed born in 1758, and he published the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, whence this quotation, in 1783, at the age of 25. This first volume later became widely known — and used — as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” and it was the most common literacy textbook in American elementary schools for about 100 years.

This error has gained weird traction in both academia and the blogosphere, but I’ll deal with that in a separate post.

2. The article claims: “For example, ch pronounced as /ch/, as in chair or chief, appears in Anglo-Saxon or Old English words; the same letter combination ch pronounced as /sh/, as in chef and chauffeur, appears in French words of Latin origin; and ch pronounced as /k/, as in ache and orchid, appears in words borrowed from Greek.

My students’ response: “The words chair and chief are both Latinate, and entered English from Old French during the Middle English period.”

Also: “The word ache is from Old English, not Greek.”

What we learned: Present-day English words with <ch> pronounced as /ʧ/ (or, as the panelists say, /ch/) are more often French than they are Old English. Not only are chair and chief French; they derive from the same roots as chaise and chef respectively. Other French-origin words include chain, chance, change, channel, chant, chapel, chapter, charge, cheat, cheer, cherish, cherry, chess, chimney, chive, chock, choice, chowder, and chuck. Also Latinate-and-not-Old-English: ranch, blanch, cinch, launch, staunch, flinch, poncho, munch, peach, preach, and roach. Many other words with <ch> as /ʧ/ that are not Latinate also did not exist in Old English, and cannot be correctly called “Anglo-Saxon,” such as chub, chuckle, chat, chomp, chop, chap, and many others. There is so very much counter-evidence to this unfounded claim!

Also: Yes, ache is Old English (from acan), not Greek. It was respelled in the eighteenth century, because of folk etymology relating it to Greek akhos, ‘pain’. Just because an error is old doesn’t mean it’s not an error.

3. The article claims that homophonic suffixes (<er>, <or> and <able> <ible>) can be spelled according to the origin of their base or stem, as I saw at the IDA conference. The authors’ published commentary on <able> and <ible> appears at the end of this paragraph about halfway through the article:

Teaching morphemes often requires more information on word origin. For example, when teaching the spellings of words with the suffixes er and or, which mean one who, as in worker or actor, teachers can tell their students that words from Old English are basic survival words. Words such as worker, carpenter, farmer, grocer, baker, brewer, and butcher are Old English and use er, whereas words of Latin origin are more sophisticated and use or, as in actor, professor, educator, aviator, director, and counselor. The same principle applies to the suffxes able and ible, both meaning able to. We use able for Old English base words and ible for Latin roots. Thus, we have passable, laughable, breakable, agreeable, and punishable, as compared to edible, audible, credible, visible, and indelible.

Student responses:

“How does a young student differentiate between “common, every day, survival” words and “sophisticated” words?”

“The suffix <able> is found not only on Anglo-Saxon words, but also Old French and Latin.”

“If –able and –ible are variants of the same suffix, why would we assume that they have different origins?”

“Several of the words listed as Old English in fact have French roots that trace back to Latin: farmer, grocer, passable, punishable, and butcher.”

“Three wrong out of five would be an F.”

And a whole lot more.

What we learned: While it is evident that the <ible> spelling surfaces exclusively in Latinate words, it is categorically untrue that it surfaces in all Latinate words, and thus equally false that <able> occurs only in words of Old English origin. In fact, of the five <able> examples given in the article, three of them — passable, agreeable, and punishable are from Latin. Likewise, of the seven words with <er> listed as Anglo-Saxon, four are from Latin: carpenter, farmer, grocer, and butcher.

Moreover, the suffixes <able> and <ible> don’t mean ‘able to’ at all. Something that is laughable is not ‘able to laugh.’ Something that is sensible is not ‘able to sense.’ Rather, these words mean ‘worthy of laughter’ or ‘having the quality of sense.’ A taxable item is ‘subject to tax’, not ‘able to tax.’ A fashionable outfit is ‘in accordance with fashion,’ not ‘able to fashion.’ In fact, not only do the suffixes <able> and <ible> have a different orthographic denotation than the adjective able, but they also have a totally different origin. Here’s what my Mactionary says:

able |ˈābəl|

adjective ( abler , ablest )

1 [with infinitive ] having the power, skill, means, or opportunity to do something : he was able to read Greek at the age of eight | he would never be able to afford such a big house.

2 having considerable skill, proficiency, or intelligence : the dancers were technically very able.

ORIGIN late Middle English (also in the sense [easy to use, suitable] ): from Old French hable, from Latin habilis ‘handy,’ from habere ‘to hold.’

-able |əbəl| |əb(ə)l|

suffix forming adjectives meaning:

1 able to be : calculable.

2 due to be : payable.

3 subject to : taxable.

4 relevant to or in accordance with : fashionable.

5 having the quality to : suitable | comfortable.

ORIGIN from French -able or Latin -abilis, adjectival endings; originally found in words only from these forms but later used to form adjectives directly from English verbs ending in -ate, e.g., educable from educate. The unrelated able has probably influenced terms such as bearable, salable.

The Mactionary has no entry for the suffix <ible>. Tsk tsk.

And from Etymonline:

able: early 14c., from O.Fr. (h)able (14c.), from L. habilem, habilis “easily handled, apt,” verbal adj. from habere “to hold” (see habit). “Easy to be held,” hence “fit for a purpose.” The silent h- was dropped in English and resisted academic attempts to restore it 16c.-17c., but some derivatives acquired it (e.g. habiliment, habilitate), via French.

-able: suffix expressing ability, capacity, fitness, from French, from L. -ibilis, -abilis, forming adjectives from verbs, from PIE *-tro-, a suffix used to form nouns of instrument. In Latin, infinitives in -are took -abilis, others -ibilis; in English, -able is used for native words, -ible for words of obvious Latin origin. The Latin suffix is not etymologically connected with able, but it long has been popularly associated with it, and this has contributed to its survival as a living suffix.

-ible: suffix forming adjectives from verbs, borrowed in M.E. from O.Fr. -ible and directly from L. -ibilis; see -able.

Okay, so the symposium panelists / authors are not the first to associate the suffix <able> with the adjectival free base <able>, but precedent is not the same thing as rectitude.

4. The article uses several words throughout its 13 pages that bear the suffix <able> or the related <ably>. We decided to check them against the authors’ own assertions. These words’ word origins checked in multiple etymology sources via Memidex, and verified by my own knowledge of French:

variable: First clue: bases that start with a <v> are almost always Latinate, or at least passed through French on their way into English. This one is from Latin variabilis, from variare, ‘to change, to vary’, via French variable.

predictable: I can tell this is isn’t Anglo-Saxon from looking at it: the <ct> is a dead give-away. Words with <ct> are either from Latin or Greek. This one is a Thoroughly Modern Millie, first attested in the 19th century, but has Latin roots, though, from prae ‘before’ and dicere ‘to say.’

undesirable: A modern etymological hybrid (17th century) from Old English <un> plus desirable from Old French desirable, ultimately from Latin desiderare — a gorgeous word related to consider and sidereal that refers to reaching for the stars.

manageable: Again, if you know what to look for, you know this is Latinate. The <age> suffix is from French, and the bound base <mane> I recognize from the Latin manus, ‘hand,’ also seen in manipulate, manifest, manufacture, and manure. But I check my hunches before I publish them, and I was surprised to find that this didn’t enter English via French, but probably via the Italian maneggiare ‘to handle.’ The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that it meant “especially ‘to control a horse,'” and was likely “influenced by French manège ‘horsemanship’.” This and other sources confirm that it’s traceable to Latin manus. See that? Latin. Neither Anglo nor Saxon.

available: The word avail was formed in Middle English from Old French parts, and the <able> was added a couple centuries later. The <a> is a prefix meaning ‘to, toward,’ and the <vail> is a free base (probably aphetic — look it up) meaning ‘benefit, bring worth.’ It’s also found in prevail and in one of my favorite words: countervailing, and is related to the bound base <vale> as seen in value, evaluate, valiant, valor, valence, valid, and convalesce, all Latinate, of course.

damageable: There’s that <age> again. Anyone who ever took French 100 learned C’est dommage, a cognate. It’s from Old French, and is cousin to the Latinate damn, condemn, and indemnity.

knowledgeable: The <kn> digraph betrays this one as having the only truly Old English base. The stem <knowledge> derives from the Middle English knowleche, whose base <know> is traceable to the Old English cnāwan. Our modern <know> counts ken, uncanny, and can among its first cousins, and agnostic and recognize and many others words among its more distant cousins. I already wrote about them here.

reasonably: Middle English from French raisonable, from Latin ratio ‘reckoning, calculation, reason.’ I’m telling you, this word study stuff is my raison d’être.

reliably: The stem <rely> comes from Old French relier, which is traceable to Latin religare ‘bind, tie together.’ Interestingly, reliable took a detour through Scottish to get here. But Anglo-Saxon it’s not.

That’s right. Of these nine words, only one has an Old English stem: knowledgeable. Funny how often we come back to knowledge in these LEX posts.

5. Finally, the article claims that the following words also belong to the  “Anglo-Saxon layer” of English. They do not:

catch (from French)

peck (late Middle English)

pouch (from French)

badge (late Middle English)

fudge (early Modern English)

age (from French)

hinge (from Middle English)

scrooge (an eponym courtesy of Charles Dickens, 1843)

desk (from Latin)

peek (late Middle English)

bagged (Middle English)

cub (Modern English — 16th c)

club (Middle English meaning ‘large stick’ and Modern English meaning ‘organization’)

class (from Latin via French)

cube (from Greek, as are most words you can add an <ic> to)

found (the past tense of find derives from an Old English word, but the present-tense verb meaning ‘to establish’ is Middle English from French from Latin).

That’s a lot of mistakes.

Here’s what one of my students said about reading this article, and he nailed it:

“I love tracing a word back to its roots and checking that against claims made by experts in language. It’s not that I’m looking to show someone that they are wrong, it’s simply my feeling that if you’re not checking on your own work then somebody should. My thought [is] that experts should be working to sharpen each other by checking their claims and what someone presents as fact.” (DK)

My students also expressed more faith in very young children than the panelist. One student captured this eloquently:

“I think it is crazy that we are just now learning these things as juniors and seniors in college. Had we started learning to spell and write like this in elementary school we all could have much better understanding of the language. A lot like [my classmate], a lot of these concepts are new to me with this class. I think that this is why I am so shocked that we have never learned any of this before. It all makes so much sense and would really help learn the language if we would be taught these topics starting at a younger age than college.” (QG)

Experts are supposed to be reliable. We’re supposed to be able to trust them to tell the truth, to verify their information, and to admit when they’ve been proven wrong. Children, no matter how young, deserve to learn what’s factual, not what’s easy. Teachers deserve to read educational articles that are fact-checked. Experts, no matter how widely published or how famous in their field, need to maintain integrity and rigor in their scholarship.

It’s that simple.

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Most people would agree that a teacher cannot be effective if she is ignorant about her subject. A skilled math teacher, for example, can’t just ignore the long-proven axioms of mathematics. An effective science teacher cannot remain agnostic about scientific principles, and a music teacher who cannot read music probably won’t have a good professional prognosis. No one can teach a subject before first studying it closely.

It is likewise with language education. In order to teach people accurately and effectively how the English writing system works, one must first study it closely. Yet, in spite of a growing emphasis on ‘evidence-based’ instruction, language education remains a discipline where surface observations go unexamined and guesswork often supplants analysis.

Besides investigating the English language itself, I also investigate the origins of the linguistic information presented in materials for language teaching, especially when those materials diverge from what the language structure reveals about itself. Recently, while reading the blog of a fellow language educator, I came across the following proclamation:

“When words share a similar meaning and spelling across languages they are called cognates (from -cog-, meaning ‘to think’, to recognize).”

This language educator’s assertion about thinking got me thinking. Is there really a meaningful element <cog> in the word <cognate>? If so, then what does the <nate> mean? This piece of “language education” bears further investigation.

Now, I’m already familiar with cognates. Most anyone who’s studied another language has learned about linguistic cognates: the French word rendez in rendez-vous is cognate with the English word render, for example. But the idea of cognates is broader than just linguistics, and understanding how it’s used outside of language helps us understand it within language. Here’s what my trusty Oxford English-based Mac dictionary (my Mactionary?) has to say on the issue:

cognate |’kɑgˈneɪt|
1 LINGUISTICS (of a word) having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root (e.g., English is, German ist, Latin est from Indo-European esti).
2 FORMAL related; connected : cognate subjects such as physics and chemistry.
• related to or descended from a common ancestor. Compare with agnate.
1 LINGUISTICS a cognate word.
2 LAW a blood relative.

Interesting. Okay, so to be “cognate” means to be related or connected. In fact, in a court of law, the word cognate would mean “a blood relative.”

So what’s this all got to do with thinking? Um . . . nothing.

Does it have anything to do with recognizing? The blogger’s parenthesis suggests a relationship between cognate and recognize. They do both have the letters <cog> in them. They sound similar. Could they be related? Do they share a meaning or a history, or just a surface appearance? Let’s investigate.

I can’t think of a meaning for recognize that has anything to do with being related, but I check the Mactionary just to be sure. That resource suggests that recognize means “to identify, acknowledge, approve of or pay tribute to.” While we might decide whether we want to identify or acknowledge our relatives, the words recognize and cognate don’t appear to have related meanings. But maybe I’m missing something, so I decide to look further into the words’ morphology (structure) and etymology (history) in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

cognate: from L. cognatus “of common descent,” from com- “together” + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci “to be born” (see genus). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings.

Oh! So there’s no <cog> in <cognate>, not morphologically or etymologically, anyhow. The letter <g> in <cognate> belongs with the <nate>, not with the <co>. The structure of the word is <co> + <gnate>. While the /g/ and the /n/ may be in different syllables, syllables have nothing to do with meaning, and it’s important for teachers not to confuse syllables with morphemes. The <g> and the <n> are within a single English morpheme, <gnate>, ‘to be born.’  With a little further investigation at etymonline, I learn that <gnate> has a variant form which appears more commonly in Modern English, as in <innate>, <nation>, <native> and <prenatal>.  Hence, words that are cognates are ‘born together;’ they are always etymologically related.

Now that I know that <gnate> is the base of cognate, then I can see that the word is not morphologically related to recognize. The two words do share a string of letters, <cog>, but that’s just a clip in <cognate> where the <g>belongs to the morpheme <gnate>. There’s no <gnate> in <recognize>. So they don’t share a base element.

What about their history, though? Could these words be related etymologically? Here’s the Online Etymology for recognize:

recognize: from O.Fr., from L. recognoscere “acknowledge, recall to mind, know again, examine, certify,” from re- “again” + cognoscere “know” (from co- “with” + gnoscere “become acquainted;” see notice). Meaning “perceive something or someone as already known” first recorded 1530s. Related: Recognized; recognizing.

Just to be sure, I check both Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and the Oxford English Dictionary. I confirm that recognize entered English <g>-less from French, but regained its <g> later on in association with its original Latin form, recognoscere, from cognoscere, ‘to become thoroughly acquainted with, investigate, get to know.’ When we peel off the prefix co, meaning ‘altogether,’ we are left with the root (g)noscere, which means simply ‘to know.’

What we have in recognize is the root gnoscere, entirely distinct from the root gnatus that gives us cognate. One means ‘to know,’ and the other means ‘to be born.’ Neither one means ‘to think.’

So where did the edublogger get her information? Well, since she doesn’t explain her methodology or even cite a source, that’s hard to say. The blog claims to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” so I decide to investigate a little further. Where might her linguistic explorations have led her? What word knowledge is being explored, and how?

First, I look for words in English where perhaps the letters <cog> do indicate a morpheme meaning ‘to think.’  I find a couple of English word families that have the letters <cog> — without the <n> — that could connote ‘thinking.’ The word cogent means “Having power to compel assent or belief; argumentatively forcible, convincing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the word cogitate means “To think, reflect, ponder, meditate; to exercise the thinking faculties.” This investigation calls to mind the famous Cartesian maxim, Cogito ergo sum, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’

However, while both cogent and cogitate have the letters ,<cog>, they do not spell the base element of these words. According to my standard sources, the <co> is again a prefix (I’m starting to notice a pattern again!), and words are related to agent and agitate. All of these words are cognate with act and come from a Latin root meaning ‘to drive, to move.’  As we can see, there’s no <cog> and no thinking here either.

Phew! What we have now is several word families that are similar on the surface, but which have completely distinct histories. Let’s sort out what we’ve got so far, with a little help from the standard resources:

1. Latin (g)nasci/(g)natus ‘to be born’ gives us Modern English cognate, ‘related.’ Words that share the this same etymological root (but not necessarily the same morphological base) include native, nature, and nativity, but also noble (‘high-born’), ignoble (there’s that <n> /<gn> alternation again), nascent, nee, pregnant (‘pre-born’), gentle (see noble), renaissance (a ‘rebirth’), genus, generation, all Latinate. From the same Indo-European etymology, we have the Greek gene and the Germanic kin. The <gn> is etymologically cognate with <g>-vowel-<n> in some words, with just <n> in others, and with <k>-vowel-<n> as in <kin>. All of these words were checked in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Latin agere ‘to act, move, to drive’ give us Modern English cogent, and agent, and their cousin (or cognate) act and its many derivatives (activity, actual, reactionary . . .).  The related Latin frequentive agitare gave us agitate and possible cogitate as well.

3. Latin (g)noscere/(g)notum/(g)nitum ‘to know’ gives us Modern English cognizant, recognize, cognition, cognitive, and the etymologically related Latinate words narrate, ignore, note, notion and notice. But like #1, this root is old, old, old, and has lots of historical relatives. Cognates from Germanic include know, acknowledge, cunning, can (‘to know how’), could, uncouth, uncanny, and ken (‘range of knowledge‘). Greek relatives include agnostic, prognosis, diagnose and gnomic, ‘dealing in maxims.’ Again, we have surface forms with <gn> and <n> and , but also with /k/-vowel-/n/ and the digraph <kn>, all from the same Proto-Indo-European etymological roots. These historical relationships were verified by the Oxford English Dictionary, etymonline.com, and a linguist friend who knows both Greek and Latin.

This etymological family gives us the tiny-but-powerful Modern English bound base <gn>, which yields a significant body of words of both Greek and Latinate origins.

Now, I acknowledge that no one can know everything about a subject, and everyone makes mistakes. Even popular and highly-regarded structured language curricula make errors in regard to this rich etymological family (#3). The SLANT System gives *<cogn> as a Greek base (it’s not: it’s two Latinate morphemes) and Patterns for Success offers both *<cogn> and *<gnosi> as Greek bases. Of course, offering the letters <gnosi> as a morpheme (1) excludes words like diagnose, agnostic and prognosticate, and (2) actually present a clip that appears only in diagnosis, prognosis and the less common agnosia and gnosis.

Such errors could be quite confusing to learners, especially those who struggle inordinately with reading and spelling. I would suggest the following analysis instead, as it’s more parsimonious and accounts for the greatest number of cases (see Pete Bowers and Melvyn Ramsden on ‘elegance‘ in the writing system):

<dia> + <gn> + <ose> + <is>           and

<pro> + <gn> + <ost> + <ic> + <ate>

Certainly educators and authors do not intend to be in error; they are just ignorant (‘unknowing’) of the structure that underlies the surface appearance of these words, and they are agnostic about the tools to investigate it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an agnostic as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable.”  Surface patterns are the ‘material phenomena’ of the written language, but relying on them without investigation leaves the deeper, meaningful structure of words in the realm of the unknown and perceived wrongly to be unknowable.

Somehow, in her intent to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” our edublogger managed to conflate three large but distinct word families into one gnarled, misleading and unchecked assertion. Perhaps her educational lens is out of focus.

Or perhaps she just confused thinking with knowing.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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