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Drawing of a sectioned skull,1489, from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch book and right a page from his notebook, including his ‘to do’ list, c.1510 Photo: THE ROYAL COLLECTION. Read more here.

Recently we completed the first trimester, a time of  assessments and report card writing. I’ve written elsewhere about quizzes and tests and exams but these etymological discoveries bear repeating.  ‘Quizzing’  implies etymologically that one is asking about the essence of self. ‘Testing’ in the 14th century meant assaying precious metals in an earthenware pot.  A test was the vessel used to deem the worth of the metals. Latin testudo is tortoise and texere is to weave. All are related to the Latin root testa earthenware pot, or pot fragment, tile. Intriguing also is the discovery that French tête has also evolved from this root with the notion that the skull is the jug or pot of the head! Likewise the German word ‘kopf’ for head is etymologically linked with cup. Read more here at Online Etymology Dictionary.

Exam’, which only appeared in English around 1848, is a clip of much earlier ‘examination’ and initially referred to ‘judicial inquiry’ (14th century) and as test of knowledge from 1610. ‘Examine’ however, in the 13th century meant ‘interrogate, question and torture’ which students would claim to still be true! ‘Assess’ in the 15th century had a sense of fixing the amount of a tax or a fine and shifted somewhat from property in 1934 to ‘judging the value of a person or idea’. The verb evaluate on the other hand is a back formation, attested from 1831 from the older evaluation , 1755, from French valuer which came from Latin valere ‘to be strong, well, of value, be worth’. From this root also sprang valiant. Despite my ambivalence about tests  this orthographic assessing and assaying has instigated a valiant response as the students buzz in and out of the room working together to help each other develop their understandings, to pool their knowledge, develop and critique each others’ hypotheses.

Rather than a list of words plucked randomly from the lexicon, the words on which students will ‘test their mettle’ are words that continue to be critical for our studies year long. The concepts have occurred already in many of the myths and will do so as we examine world religions, religious conflicts and history of the Weimar republic and the dark period of the rise of nazism.

I want this test to measure their thinking and understanding rather than a regurgitation of facts. Of course I hope they remember forever the meaning of the roots, but the majority of this test requires morphological understanding and careful consideration and justification of hypotheses rather than a memorized fact. Can they then apply this to words they have not before encountered? Can they interpret the entry from Online Etymology? And so I continue to repeat to the class that this is less a test of right or wrong but far more a test of thinking and the evidence used to support a hypothesis.

Prior to this test we have slowed down the leap to resources. So many of my students have a tendency to believe that everything is googleable! I have observed how often and swiftly students want to dive into the Online Etymology Dictionary, a critical and invaluable resource but they are so swift and ignore so much in order to grab the first foreign root they stumble over, convinced this is the ‘answer’. So this time we delay the ‘dictionary dive’ and explore what we know, proposing possible morphemes, ‘testing’ this out. Herein is the real test – giving students the space to think. No laptops. No dictionaries. Just themselves and each other. What do you know about this word? What is your hypothesis for the morphemes? What corroborating evidence is there for each proposed element? Label your thinking and then decide what question you have before turning to the dictionaries.

Discussing a hypothesis with the class prior to having looked at any resources:

This process of slowing down the leap to resources has led to:

  • thoughtful questions,
  • deepened understandings about all aspects of morphology
  • clarified for many the relationship between base and root
  • revealed the idea that one root can produce more than one base element
  • revealed that base elements can be homographic :the free base element <pass> and the bound base element <pass>.

In this test I asked more open ended questions such as:

What is a suffix? Write at least three statements that are trues about suffixes. Support with examples.

What is a base element? How do base elements differ from roots? Write statements that are true about base elements.

The following are written comments from the test: Jasper stated: ‘Base elements can be bound or free, they have roots. Affixes can only become words if there is a base.’ In the anlysis of his word <courage> Jasper noted that <cour> was the base, that it was bound and from Latin cor heart. He gave examples to prove the suffix <-age> as garbage, forage and then counter examples stating <-age> is not a suffix in: image, cage and page.

Isablella stated that: ‘A suffix is not at the end of a word because they are attached either to a base or another suffix. Suffixes can change the tense of the word.’ She explained that a ‘base is the main meaning of the word. Bases differ from roots because the roots are the origin, the building blocks. The root can become many bases and then the bases can have a more specific meaning. Although the base carries the main meaning of a word, the base’s meaning can change slightly depending on what affixes are added. Bases can either be free or bound, free meaning that it can mean something by itself. Bound meaning that you need affixes for it to mean something.’

Ha An wrote: ‘Base elements hold the most meaning in a word. They’re like the first building block, then you add more blocks to it (prefixes and suffixes’). Base elements are indications of the word in the present day and roots are the meaning and origin of the base elements. There can be two base elements in words, for example <everybody>. Some base elements cannot stand alone even though it might look like they can For example <com+pass+ion>. <pass> here is bound. Without bases you do not have a word. More than one base element can come from the same root. For example from Latin specere – <spect> and <spec>.’

I also gave students a word they had not examined in class <lecture> asked them to prove all the morphemes, then develop a question or a statement of what they would look for in the Online Etymology Dictionary.Only when they had analyzed the word and were clear about what they would do with the information from Etymology Online, did I provide them with the printed entry for <lecture>, the noun and verb.

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So what do I look for in a student’s response that indicates understanding about the structure of words? Well, certainly more than a right or wrong answer. As I hope is evident from student responses, I look to see knowledge of the root and its meaning- yes learned, but important to identify relationships between related words. I look to see justification of a hypothesis with relevant supporting evidence. I look for understanding of morphemes, for  analysis of words into prefixes, base elements and suffixes and evidence of  related words. Above all I look for evidence of thinking as the students themselves are learning that spelling or what is termed ‘vocabulary knowledge’ is cognitive, not rote memorization. These samples certainly help to capture student understanding.

I am proud of their achievements. As my sister and I discovered in a recent discussion ( and yes word obsession does appear to be contagious) the word  achievements has quite a lot to do with heads! Intrigued- curiosity piqued? Then read on dear readers here from the Online Etymology Dictionary, the site where all heads like Alices’s become ‘filled with ideas’ although in the case of these 7th grade students their heads are filled with more than ideas as they are beginning to discover the sense and meaning of words.

And to return the beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, in particular those of the skull as seen above. I am fascinated by his mirror handwriting and the discovery that the right hand page contained his packing list for a journey– all the listed items practical if taken up with the structure of the body. I love the reminder to pack spectacles, fork, charcoal, paper and a skull juxtaposed with nutmeg.

‘On the Utilities. Spectacles with case, firestick, fork, bistoury [a surgical knife], charcoal, boards, sheets of paper, chalk, white wax, forceps, pane of glass, fine-tooth bone saw, scalpel, inkhorn, penknife.

“Get hold of a skull. Nutmeg.

“Observe the holes in the substance of the brain, where there are more of less of them.

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker and jaw of a crocodile.

“Give measurement of the dead using his finger [as a unit].

“Get your books on anatomy bound. Boots, stockings, comb, towel, shirts, shoelaces, penknife, pens, a skin for the chest, gloves, wrapping paper, charcoal.

Watch below an overview of Leonardo’s anatomical work introduced by Martin Clayton for the 2012 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

or a 29 minute documentary on Leonardo’s anatomical drawings here. You might be interested in buying an app for the ipad published by the wonderful Touch Press. Check it out here.

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