Sundays are busy.
Garbage goes out. Grocery store. Prep for school. Organize paperwork. Check the calendar. Plan the week.
These days, Sundays also include 1 or 2 kiddos in the morning, followed by Old English for Orthographers. That LEXinar was one of my first two, developed in 2014 because a beautiful and curious soul from Nashville asked me for it. Since a lot of my scholarship community has some kind of background in Orton-Gillingham (or MSLE), many of them have encountered Bob Calfee’s “Layers of Language” triangle model in which English words are divvied up into so-called Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek “layers.” You can totally google it if you want to see it.
That triangle is problematic for a lot of reasons. For starters, of the dozen words it claims are “Anglo-Saxon” (bird, blood, cry, ditch, girl, grave, jump, laugh, mother, mouth, run, wash), at least three are not, and a fourth one might not be. The words girl and jump lack Old English roots, and cry is from Old French, from a Latin verb for ‘wailing or keening’ and probably originally echoic, like squeal and squeak or whine and wheedle.
The word grave is actually two different words — homographs — and honestly, I don’t think either of them is really a “common” or “everyday word used often in ordinary situations” — if it is, I feel sorry for those kids. One of the graves is, in fact, of Old English origin, and thus “Anglo-Saxon”: the one that means ‘burial place.’ It’s related to groove and thus to groovy. The other one, unrelated, means ‘serious’ and it’s Latinate, as we can see when we look at its broader word family: gravity, gravitation, gravitas, aggravate.

Even the 8 words that are actually of Old English origin paint a false picture. Many words of Old English origin are wonderfully abstract, higher-register words, like forlorn or fathom or abide.

Another problem is that the triangle uses non-empirical descriptors, contending that words of Latin origin are “technical, sophisticated words,” and then cherry-picking their examples. They conveniently overlook words with Latinate histories like cup, plate, sock, pen, pencil, note, round, square, class, catch, lesson, and chair.  The triangle does the same thing with Greek, stacking the evidence deck by picking only “specialized words used mostly in science,” like atmosphere and chromosome. They mistake genome for a “compound,” and they choose 100% Modern English words, coined by modern scholars, from Greek parts. I can assure you that the ancient Greeks never once discussed the atmosphere, chromosomes, genomes, photographs, or thermometers.

I’ve been speaking and writing about this very thing for a long time. One of the big things that this triangle misses is French — not the modern loanwords like mustache and chef and chaise and niche  and château in which a <ch> spells /ʃ/, but the much earlier contributions from those Franco-Vikings, the Normans, and their Scandinavian version of Old French. Words like chance and choice and march and catch. The words chair and chief — commonly mistaken as “Anglo-Saxon” words — were actually borrowed from Old French in early Middle English and then re-borrowed from Modern French into Modern English centuries later as chaise and chef.

The river we call English has not stopped flowing, but the triangle has no place for any of those words.

Where a word — or an element — came from and how it got here? That matters. Even to young kids, just acquiring their literacy.

One of my online students, I call him Thane (go look it up), is in 6th grade and has a wonderful dyslexic mind. He understands his dyslexia to require him to take additional time to process and produce language; indeed, I have noticed that speeding through things with him is never helpful, but given enough time to think through his understanding, he makes clear and often brilliant connections. He is finely-tuned to pronunciation, and it’s something we talk about all the time. For example: “Where does the [ʧ] come from in country?”

Today, we were studying the words contract and contrast, and it was really a lesson in WYSIWYGgery, that tendency to fail to look beneath the surface. These two words look a lot alike on the surface, and all phonics would do with them is divide them into syllables. However, word sums for the two words reveal two very different structures: one is a compound <contra + st>, and the other is a base plus a prefix <con + tract>.

We decided to zero in on contrast, and he chose the <st> base to study further. Along the way, we encountered stage and state, two words commonly mistaken for “Anglo-Saxon” words. The truth is so much more interesting. I asked Thane to do a word sum for state, and he offered *<sta + te>. I was taken aback, because we had just been looking at that <st> base. I know that feeling well, the sense of being totally puzzled by my dyslexic student’s error, because we had just been talking about a thing.

But given enough time, and my curiosity, Thane was able to explain his reasoning, which was really brilliant. “Why did you put the plus sign there?” I asked. I did not tell him he was wrong, or tell him to trace it, or pull out a flashcard. I just asked him what he was thinking. And I’m so glad I did.

“Well, I know that ate is a word on its own, so it can’t be a suffix.” Again, I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I just nodded and moved on.

“So what does ate mean?” I asked him.

He told me, “Like, I ate dinner.

“OK, so it’s the past tense of eat. I said. Every day I eat dinner; yesterday I ate tacos.” He nodded. I pointed again to state. “Does the word state have anything to do with eating?” I asked.


“Well then there must be something else going on.” I pulled up the Online Etymology Dictionary. We looked up ate, and it directed us to eat. We went to eat and Thane told me right away that it’s from Old English. Then I typed <-ate> into the search bar, and we found that any <-ate> suffix we have in English is Latinate. They are not the same form!

“Oh, wow!” he said. There it was: understanding and proof. Not drills and memorization, but understanding.

“Let’s look at another one,” I said. We studied <st + age>. Thane knows his way around a theater, so he could tell me what a stage is. I also used the phrase at this stage of my life… to give him another idea of the word’s senses. “Do you think that the <age> has to do with age?” I asked him. He did not. We also studied postage and courage and garage to see a different pronunciation of that suffix.

Just because things may look or sound the same doesn’t mean they are the same. And just because they look or sound different, doesn’t mean they are! The suffix <-less> and the quantifier less are not the same; the suffix <-ful> and the adjective full basically are the same. The suffix <-able> and the word able are not the same; the suffixes <-able> and <-ible> historically are the same thing. They’re allomorphs: variant forms of the same deeper morphemic structure.

The Germanic grave is not the same thing as the Latinate grave. They may look the same, but they’re not.

All those sweet little pieces of English that get missed in the triangle? That Norman French that burst into an already Scandinavianized Old English? Yeah, that’s Middle English. It’s just where Doug Harper and I will be picking up for our Etymology conference next month.

I will be announcing options for virtual attendance this week. Don’t get Stuck in the Middle (English). Stay tuned, and join us.

I am out of LEX Grapheme decks, 2nd edition.

This means that I’m faced with a choice: do I just reprint them and keep selling? Or do I do what I did the last time they ran out, in 2014: update them with the deeper understanding I have of graphemes now, compared to four years ago?

The first edition came out in 2011. The second in 2014. The last time I came out with a new edition, a couple of colleagues prevailed upon me to just put out a document cataloguing the changes, so that people who already had the first edition wouldn’t have to buy a whole new deck. Because, you know, why should I actually earn anything for my efforts?

I told them: “I did put together a document cataloguing the changes: it’s called the second edition.” Unsatisfied with my response, they prevailed upon me again and I agreed to send them a free deck so that they themselves could craft the document they imagined.

Well, after I think just 3 or 4 cards, they already had 5 pages of notes.


And of course, my researched understanding of graphemes has continued to grow and deepen over the past four years. I have a better sense of the diachronic forces that shaped the forms we see synchronically. I have a much better sense of the clusters of graphemic relatives that each grapheme has in the present-day orthography. Since the 2nd edition was published, I have researched, developed, and presented LEXinars on a variety of linguistic topics, including the history of English spelling, stress, syllables, and a whole series on orthographic phonology, which has continued to shape my understanding well beyond where it was in 2014.

So I think it’s time.

Time to re-search through my Grapheme deck, my magnum opus, and re-discover what it is I know about English graphemes, which is a whole lot. It will take a few months. Right now I am focused on finishing up the 2nd edition of Matrix Study Sheets, which people have been waiting very patiently for. But the new Grapheme Decks will go on pre-sale during the Etymology conference in March, at a discounted, held rate of $60. That has been the price of that deck the whole time, through both editions. That price will be available for the 3rd edition for one week only, March 21-March 28, 2018. After that, the price will increase, depending on my increased production costs.

Anyone who has the deck and actually studies it knows that it’s a lifeline. Well, every lifeline needs to be strong, or it won’t save lives. What keeps my work strong is ongoing research — not some pedagogical study in which one group pilots “using” my deck and another group controls for not “using” it — but deep, meaningful, longitudinal searching and searching again. Over the past four years, I have reconsidered the physical evidence from the writing system itself. I have shared those reconsiderations in real time with the scholars who study with me. They are mind-blowing, if you study them. If what you want is some list of phonemes to inject into children, please go away.

For folks who have the first or second edition of the deck, you’re gonna want the third. If you just recently got the second, don’t worry! It will remain valuable in your learning for a long time! And it’s going to take me at least 5 or 6 months, probably longer, to get the new deck together.

Every so often, someone asks me to recommend journal articles or books or some other source, so they can read it themselves and get some of the understanding I am trying to offer. I think people believe that they will prove something to themselves by looking at what some other person has to say about orthographic phonology, rather than by just looking at my deck. Over the years, people who have really studied the deck have challenged me a lot to rethink patterns that I had or had not included. That ongoing dialogue is part of what shapes this research. Not what someone said in an academic journal somewhere.

The LEX Grapheme Deck is a textbook. It’s an encyclopedia of graphemes. It’s a life’s work. It’s unique in all the world, and that is not hyperbolic. It is researched — I spent a whole academic year of graduate school researching it as an independent study under my dissertation director, and I got graduate credit for that research. If it were even possible to put it in the form of a journal article, it would very likely go through a round of rejections and revisions at the hands of  “reviewers” who have no idea how orthographic phonology works. No thanks.

So even if you’ve had a look, look again. Search, and even when you’ve found something worthwhile, re-search.

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

Register online or print and send in the flyer.

You won’t want to miss it.

1-180324 Etymology VI with Doug Harper

2-180324 Etymology VI with Doug Harper

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

I sold one lousy book.

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

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

Then she got sick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Front Cover JDMJanuary

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

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

It’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

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

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

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

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

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This fall I will be traveling and studying in France with some of my teachers and some of my students. I plan to document the trip in a private online space, and am offering a limited opportunity for other scholars to share this experience with us. This is not a live LEXinar, but rather a place to share word studies, investigations, stories, photos, video, and narrative.

I hope you’ll join us. This is a non-refundable purchase, so please read the description carefully and ask any questions before you sign up at this link.

A couple days ago I just finished teaching my Syllables: Fact and Fiction LEXinar. And in a few days I will finish up another round of the Zero Allophone LEXinar. Scholars who have taken those classes understand more deeply each day why the syllabaloney of phonics has gone bad.

I recently engaged in some commentary on the blog of Dr. Tim Shanahan, a longtime proponent of phonics who appears to be unable to understand two key truths: (1) studying the language accurately is not just ‘doing morphology,’ and (2) pedagogical research is not the only research in the world.

One of Shanahan’s acolytes, Jo-Anne Gross, owner of a phonics company called Remediation Plus, demonstrated impressive tenacity in her misapprehensions, like that */c/ is the first phoneme in cat. Oh my. While repeatedly telling me that I’m wrong by citing actually wrong people like Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats, Jo-Anne also offers readers this stinky piece of linguistic charcuterie: “a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not ‘sound’ driven.”

I’ve offered Jo-Anne and Harriet free Syllables LEXinars with me. So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.”

So today I asked Jo-Anne and Tim (who has just stopped responding to me since I told him to stop sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me for being the scholar that I am) and Harriet, “So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?”

In this post, then, I will offer you what I wrote on the blog, and interspersed you will find the really beautiful, coherent understanding that real language study offers us.

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why ‘love’ isn’t spelled with a ‘u’ with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They’re both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Although they are proper adjectives, Finnish and Polish have totally coherent structures; we can see their free base elements in Fin, Finland, and Pole (but not in the blend Poland). Finish and polish both have base elements with single, final <e>s: <fine + ish>, <pole + ish> — we see that latter bound base also in polite. My fantastic 6th grader and I also investigated that <ish> suffix, which we also found in establish, embellish, and punish — it is a suffix formed from the <iss(e)> verbal stem suffix in French: etablissement, embellissezpunissons.

But perhaps she would’ve preferred to divide words into syllables on a list, eh?

As for to, do, who, and love, any real spelling scholar knows that when you can’t use a <u>, you use an <o>. And they know why you can’t use a <u> in those words. And so does my 2nd grader. Why? Because I showed her. And you know what? It totally mattered to her, even though Dr. Shanahan likes to speculate that facts don’t matter to 7-year-olds.

Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate — I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking?

The only way to explain the distinction is etymologically. Pizza is Italian, as is the mozzarella you put atop it. Patterns, people.

Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don’t know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, jostle? Why is the ‘t’ there? Because, château (oh, let your kiddos live a little!), wrest, and joust. Look, a lot of 6-year-olds would dig studying castles and châteaux and jousts, since phonics is so concerned with building everything around what kids want. We fact-finders will also tell you why wrestle needs a <wr> — because it denotes ‘twist.’ But all phonics can do is teach ‘stle’ as though it was a thing (it’s not), and ignore the pattern of the ‘t’ in listen, often, soften, and even ‘prints.’

Why is there a ‘c’ in muscle? Muscular. Or a ‘b’ about ‘subtle’? That’s an <sub> prefix, of course. Man, whoever stuck a ‘b’ in that word deserves a prize. Heh. Silent letter humor is the best humor because it’s the smartest.

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical association with the others. Aisle denotes ‘wing’ and is related to aileron and axis. That <s> was also a scribal error that stuck, because people associated it with isle, which came by its <s> honestly.

But I’m sure no small children would enjoy a story about long-ago monks and their false-steps and flourishes. Because it would be a lot more important for kindergarteners to study, you know, that */c/ is a phoneme. For Chrissakes.

How about in prin/ci/ple — why isn’t that ‘i’ long if it’s in an ‘open syllable’? Because in real life, there are only two types of syllables; open and closed. Open syllables end in a vowel (but not a lax vowel in English), and closed syllables have a consonant coda. The letters in a syllable have little to do with what ‘type’ of syllable it is: though is open but but cough is closed, and neither is exceptional. The word principle has an actual structure, and it’s <prin + cip(e) + le>. Which is different from a <prin + cip(e) + al). Check out that <le> suffix again, yo. Prince was clipped from the root of principle and principal, and princess was built from prince

What about treble and pebble? Yikes. Well, treble is related to triple (think 3-part harmonies), which also lacks a doubled medial consonant. Because, once again, in real life, it has an actual structure: <tri + ple> — stick a pin in that <ple> base element, which denotes ‘fold.’

Why is there an ‘o’ in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too? Because it’s so popular?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an ‘ou’ but octuple has just a ‘u’? Because, doubt and duplicitous, copula and copulate and because that <co> is the footprint of a prefix — you know, the one that carries a force of ‘with or together’? And octuple (not *octupple) has a connector <u>, as does quadruple, in which the pronunciation of the <u> is different. Ooh, fancy.  Why isn’t oc/tu/ple pronounced ‘octooople’? Because no one would understand you if you said that. Why isn’t multiple spelled *multipple? Because it’s <mult + i + ple>, that’s why (compare <mult + it(e) + ude>). In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Because, circus and sparkPhonics doesn’t answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Because an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.’  Pine needles and porc + u + pine needles always come in more than one. Why isn’t poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle? Because they’re modern loans or coinages (both from German), respelled in the present-day English default, like shampoo and google and boondoggle.

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them. Even if Reid Lyon or Tim Shanahan or Jo-Anne or Harriet says so. 

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is “Fickle Syllable Boondoggle.” Funny how the syllabullies don’t hesitate to use the word “syllable” all the time with children who can’t “handle” big words.

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