Saturday, 17 August 2013

Starting the learning journey...word families, word webs, matrixes, word sums

Essential Understandings...where to start?

Building essential orthographic understanding in the
early years.
"What are some ways to start teaching structured word inquiry 
with a group of children...?"
A frequently asked question from teachers who are embarking on the critical journey of teaching orthography (morphology, etymology and phonology).

I use the word <critical> with great emphasis, as I believe orthography, and in particular morphology (and etymology), to be the critical 'missing link' in the teaching of literacy in the early years of schooling.
Using significant words to investigate,
from a Unit of Inquiry about materials and their properties.
Although I am particularly interested in provided developmentally appropriate experiences for younger children, the following strategies and activities have been presented to different age groups, ranging from 3 year olds to Middle School students to adults. 
Learning to use resources to independently investigate the
structure, meaning and history of words.
As with all our teaching and learning, the learners' prior knowledge, understanding, age and learning needs are taken into careful consideration to plan the most appropriate and relevant experiences. Consequently these activities are consistently adapted according to the needs of the learner group.
Using significant learning tools like flowcharts, to build understanding of
essential suffixing  patterns.

Here is an example of a structured learning experience to introduce the essential understandings of English orthography.

Starter word: <healthy>

Structured Word Inquiry: A selection of learning experiences
(from 'Starting the Learning Journey' document)
1. Developing a bank of word webs, using free starter bases, to demonstrate the significance of the connectedness of meaning and spelling. 
For example (heal) is the base of (healthy), and is clearly related in meaning, even though there is a pronunciation change in the word (healthy). The spelling comes directly from the base <heal>, hence:
 heal + th + y --> healthy
A 'work in progress' word web created by a Grade 1/2 group to demonstrate the
word family for the base <heal>.

These structured word inquiry activities, such as building word webs, can be effectively embedded in your current Unit of Inquiry. For example, this group of students were investigating the following central idea for this PYP Unit of Inquiry about the human body.
(healthy) was a significant word used throughout the unit.

The students created a base 'pot' to demonstrate
the significance of the base and to teach the
difference between the meaning and spelling of
<heal> , <heel> and <hill>, which have
similar pronunciations.

...and a suffix pot too!

The students are creating morphological word sums for the
base <heal>.
The students created the word sum for <unhealthier>.
un + heal + th + i/y +er --> unhealthier
The word web for (heal), and other related activities, can be shared at an assembly or with other audiences.
The base (heal) jumped out of the base pot!
The students demonstrated the word sum for (healthy), with the base (heal) and the two suffixes (th) and (y), demonstrating the suffix change of the i/y.

These initial, introductory activities help to build a solid foundation for future learning and further exploration. For example, as a teacher you might now decide to:
  • demonstrate how the words can be arranged in the form of a matrix. 
  • write and spell the word sums.
  • focus on the suffixing pattern of i/y.
  • investigate homophones (heal) (heel).
  • investigate the different phonemes for the diagraph (ea) in (heal) and (health).  
  • do a further investigation of the etymology of (heal), looking for etymological markers as a key to the spelling.
Real Spelling has posted a very valuable video in the comments section of this post. This video gives the full story of the free base <heal>. With this information and understanding you, as the teacher, can now make better informed choices about what elements to introduce, teach and guide your students. 
As Pete Bower's states "How can we offer learners an understanding of our writing system unless the instruction is informed by an
accurate understanding in the first place?"

As indicated in the learning experience above, you can begin with a starter base already known by the students, with a prepared bank of words,  OR you can...

...start with a group of words (in a bag, pocket or mystery box) with a starter base to be discovered by the students!

starter base <paint>
Start with a bag of words and a blank word web.
In this activity the words are
<painted> <painting> <painter> <repaint>...
The children predict the base as the words are exposed, discussed
and placed on the word web.
As each word is exposed the students discuss the meaning of the word and think about the base.
The students actively participate in the learning.

When all the words have been added to the word web the students are 
asked to make a prediction about the base. Ask the students to share their ideas with a partner.
When the base has been revealed and proven it can be
 recorded on the word web.
And finally illustrated and presented by the students. The students can now create their own word web.
The completed (or maybe, not completed!) word web. 

You can find more information about these learning experiences by clicking on these links: word web collaborative activity; blog post 'Can you teach morphology to Young Children?'; article Starting the Learning Journey


  1. Orthographic linguistics is a science - the rigorous scientific study of the structures of the representation of sense and meaning as text.

    The English orthographic system - as it has evolved and continues to evolve as the living entity that it is - is entirely coherent, consistent, and predictable. There is a reason for every spelling that is discoverable from the evidence of text itself.

    Any talk of ‘exceptions’ is at best a confession of inability to explain a spelling and at worst an unacceptable implication that such ‘exception’ do not and can not have a rational explanation.

    This blog is a rare jewel precisely because it proceeds from the conviction that - like all orthographic systems that have evolved - English orthography is an optimal match for the representation of the sense and meaning of a language to those who already know and speak the language that is being represented.


    The Real Spelling Tool Box is a resource for understanding English orthography that, while definitely not a handbook for programmatic pedagogy, provides essential understanding that resources and informs principled professional pedagogues to make the informed judgements and choices that you are clearly devoted to and determined to implement.

    Here’s a tutorial about the orthography of ‘unhealthy’ to resource your excellent teaching team to make your own professional choices of what you teach about it and how you will proceed in investigating it.

  2. As ever, Lyn, you are lighting the way for teaching how our writing system works from the very beginning of schooling.

    As pointed out by the Old Grouch, the critical point is that your work is built on a rigorously accurate understanding of the structure and purpose of English spelling. In addition, the activities you describe and illustrate make it clear for those who are new to this understanding that this instruction is totally appropriate - and engaging - for young children.

    What could motivate learning more than understanding? And how can we offer learners an understanding of our writing system unless the instruction is informed by an accurate understanding in the first place?

    Keep the posts coming!