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I discovered this image when I stumbled upon a site” Funny shirts for Science Geeks”. Check this out and, given the previous post and the title of this blog, I love the nerd shirt!

Should <e> stay, or should <e> go? This was the question that sparked an inquiry, ‘The Case of the Disappearing <e>’ during the week with grade 7s.

Our task, to investigate a series of words, some free base elements and some stems. A stem is a base element with another bound element attached and to which you are adding another suffix or prefix such as ‘replay’( stem: prefix +base) +ing) We then considered the effect of a suffix on these words. Sometimes the <e> disappeared when adding a suffix, yet in other words, the <e> remained. Was there a consistent pattern ? Could the students come up with a clear, concise hypothesis that accounted for this? Could they then translate this hypothesis to a flow chart?

Students were asked to analyze words into morphemes. This was a challenging exercise in itself as these students, new to morphology, peeled off the affixes. They used the charts on their table to do this. I find the use of a prefix chart from Real Spelling and a suffix chart that previous classes have helped to compile, a useful springboard for students as they plunge into the heady waters of morphology. Our suffix chart is by no means complete and students must examine the possibility of the existence of a suffix by confirming it with other words sharing this. This stage of ‘the case’ took several days. It was homework as I asked students to think about one word.

Here’s an email I received from one student one night:

‘This is what i think the word sum is.

de+term+in+a+tion

is this correct?

thanks’.

My response then as I hope to go beyond the ‘right answer’ fixation to push his thinking further:

‘Interesting hypothesis my friend! More work needed:

What if I said the  word <action> What would the suffix there be?

Then think about <operation> and peel back the suffixes

and peel back the suffixes from the word <elongate>?

Another hint: think about the word <bovine> which means cow like or <marine>’

Student again:

Hi this is me again,

is the word sum

<De+term+ine+ate+ion>?

Thank you.

I am pleased that this student has ‘had a go’, but hope to see him expressing more justification and backing up his theory with evidence for each morpheme as the year and inquiries into words progress.

New for many students was the suffix  <–ate> which they discovered when asked to check whether inspiration could be analyzed as <*in+ spire+at+ion> or <in+spire+a+tion>. Many students were surprised that <*tion> was not a suffix. They could think of examples where this letter string occurred but when asked how they could account for this in the word <action>, their eyes widened as they realized where the morphemic boundaries lay!

I adapted a flow chart from Real Spelling by removing all text except for the words START,” “Yes” , “No” and the final boxes  “Just add the suffix”, and “Replace the single silent <e> with the suffix.”  This <e> often referred to as ‘silent’, is non-syllabic, always final in a base, and also in some suffixes.

Watch as students are challenged by  ‘The Case of the Disappearing <e>’

Sadly, these videos all too often reveal that I still need to remain silent longer in order to “hear” and understand a student response, as well as develop a steadier hand – less of the Blair Witch Project hand held camera effect!. While this public exposure can be confronting, I find this recording of students extremely helpful. This has allowed me to reflect on the questions I ask of students and has assisted removing the tendency to rescue or overwhelm my students with a tsunami of information. I have learned to be patient and allow more time for cognitive struggle. Students develop more pride in their efforts when given time to reflect and justify rather than give out the answer but the balance is fine- too much time and interest wanes, too little time and students become dependent on the right answer rather learning the habits of persistence and data gathering to support an hypothesis.

This was challenging for all students from the most competent (or those whose writing appears error free) to those who need to internalize this pattern in their writing. Just because writing is error free, does this mean that students understand and justify the why of an orthographic pattern or convention? This understanding and analysis of patterns and conventions is exactly what those who are new to English seek in coming to grips with the English language. This too is exactly what those students whose writing appears to be filled with miscues need to understand. Too often these students  are misled by mnemonics and half truths purporting to be rules. All too often students are told  rules rather than challenged to investigate, gather and  analyze data they have amassed. All too often we “tell” students rather than allow the time to explore. All too often we rush this stage rather than give them time for this to settle and allow for reflection and refinement of their ideas.

Completing the flow chart too was demanding for students. Many struggled converting statements into questions. However, I was struck by high student engagement and by the fact that students did not want to be corrected but guided –  they wanted their efforts heard and challenges to be given. Creating the flow chart demanded precision of thought  and refinement of language. It allowed for me to clarify many of the linguistic terms I use from the first day. I expect students to use these in their charts and discussion. I expected the flow chart to be consistent, to work for every example. This meant each word needed to be worked through the steps on the chart. I asked for the language to be simple, precise and elegant- in effect to apply Ockham’s razor. (An interesting night of reading there for me!)  I explained to students Willliam of Ockham , Franciscan friar and scholar and philosopher (1288-1348), is frequently attributed for the theory expressed as :“Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” In my reading I came across this statement:  “The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not” and that is precisely what students were struggling with in this task. While being challenged to express this understanding of a suffixing pattern with clarity and economy or parsimony, Professor Massimo Pigliucci , philosopher at CUNY, warns about this notion of simplicity and economy:

“There is no shortcut for a serious investigation of the world, including the spelling out of our auxiliary, and often unexplored, hypotheses and assumptions.’

In reference to word inquiry and this investigation by grade 7, I take heed of Piglucci’s warning and have taken the liberty of slightly adapting this: “There is no shortcut for a serious investigation of a word, including the spelling out of our auxiliary, and often unexplored, hypotheses and assumptions.” This is the basis of word inquiry- serious investigation and questioning of hypotheses with data and evidence.

And yes we did come together as a whole class to consolidate our understanding, refine our language and to establish if <e> should stay or should <e> go.  I am sure you can anticipate what’s coming next, yes a time warp to the 80’s with the one, the only “The Clash

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