My Father’s Dragon

my father's dragon

Last week, we finished this sweet, funny little novel, the first in a series of three about the adventures of Elmer Elevator and the dragon he rescues (not to give away the ending).  Like most adventures, it is the journey rather than the arrival that is most delicious.  Before Elmer embarked for Wild Island, we made a list of things we’d want to take on such an adventure.  We then read the surprising list of things that Elmer carried in his backpack.  Part of the fun was checking off the list as they were used in such surprising ways (though he never seemed to use the clean clothes–clearlyhis priorties are solid).  IMG_3388 

Why do I choose such an old book (published in 1948) to read to today?  Like the Thornton Burgess books, it has a gentleness to it–a lack of cynicism, a lightness, that in spite of (because of?) the onslaught of fast-paced media and violence the children are thirsty for.  It is almost like a relief to them to experience a tale so unflashy.  And there is wry humour and not-hit-over-your-head wisdom in these stories, and inspiration:  as the children are asked to take on more and more responsibility for themselves we are mightily impressed with a fellow who can be so self-reliant (and who can largely survive on tangerines).   How can we not imagine ourselves there?  Besides, given all our “knight” metaphors, it’s never a bad idea to see that even a dragon can be a friend.  (Now there’s a metaphor I could extend in some interesting directions).  There’s a reason the book has never been out of print in more than 60 years:  it’s a gem.  I think I may not be able to resist launching into the second book next week, but I doubt many would object to reading the first again at home!  How else are you going to find out how to make a bridge with pink lollipops?


Has Spring Sprung?

Hello folks at home!  It’s been a little while since I posted anything, so here’s a little update on what we’re up to.  I’ve had some nice feedback about the blog from some parents, but am not completely sure how many have seen the thing, or what they are checking out.  Are your reading this stuff?  Checking the Gallery?  Is it helpful?  Are you finding your way around?  I’d welcome any input you have.   I think I have just about figured out how to insert some video, in order to share some of what we are doing with reading as well as other activities.


Well, spring finally felt like it had sprung today.  Apparently there were about a million geese that flew overhead today, but sadly we missed it.  I’m going to start leaving the windows open a crack just so we can hear them if it happens again, and we’ll run outside.  Azylynn reminded me of my seasonal responsibility, and so I cranked out another chalk drawing.  Spring or not, the Root Children, and the sprouts in the ground, are still waiting to wake up, as is the story from which they come.   We had some good questions last week about why Spring is white and cold in Canada, but is green and warm in China, or Greece, or England.  With questions like this, I am very comfortable leaving the wonder as wonder.   Among the many, many things my wife has taught me about young children is that they often don’t want a great big explanation–what they want is the shared experience of wondering.  We have a tendency to over-inform children, denying them the opportunity to consider and explore ideas–sometimes for a long time.  At some point, the children will learn about the tilt of the earth and so on, but they don’t really need to know right now.  If Galileo had lived in The Information Age, I wonder if he would have bothered pondering the stars.

<Spring> and <sprung> are examples of words that don’t follow the suffixing patterns the children have come to expect.   (This is why young children quite reasonably say “runned”).   Words that change form as they change tense are quite common and normal, reflective of the oral language pre-dating the written.   Orestis brought this to our attention last week and so we have begun a collection.  I think we will find some interesting patterns in these words.  Today, we were looking at the spelling relationships between words–their etymological connections.  We were trying to decide how we know whether to use <knew> or <new>, and agreed that the pair of words connected by their <kn> digraph were logically related.  Darcy wisely exclaimed, “They’re cousins!”  These ones are so close I think I’d call them brothers.  We will see others among our homophones that are similar:  <blow> is clearly related to <blew> rather than <blue>.   These patterns are not just cute; they are real and predictable, and should be helpful.  IMG_3389The other pattern we’ve been digging through is when does a suffix cause the final consonant in a word to double?  Through our explorations, we seem to have arrived at a 1-1-v pattern:  in a word where one vowel comes before one final consonant, that consonant doubles when we add a vowel suffix.  Why am I telling you all this?  Because you may be like me and didn’t learn a bunch of it in school, and because it will give you something to chat about as you explore words in reading and writing at home.  It’s good if we speak the same language, n’est ce pas?

Meanwhile, in math…


Hey Nautica and Orestis!  Does that say 3 o’clock? Must be time for some silliness!  (By the way, have you figured out as I just did that you can click on photos and make them big?  Yes, you probably already knew that)

While a six-year-old’s sense of time is appropriately fairly limited (which is why they have no idea how long it takes them to put their coat on, and why rhythm and routine are so vital to their functioning) we have begun to explore clocks.  We’ll focus mainly on time to the hour and half hour, but will touch on minutes in increments of 5 (because it doesn’t make sense to me to teach 9:30 without explaining how we got to 30).  We’ll also read these times in both analog and digital.  We’ll spend a short time on time this week, and then reinforce this skill in practice over the next months.  We’ve been working to solidify our “Friends of Ten” addition facts, toward applying it to the addition of larger numbers.  Practice with any of this stuff can’t hurt, as long is it is kept pretty relaxed.

Our year-long look at seasons will obviously continue, and we will also expand our explorations of relationships into a look at the broader community–all toward helping the children to solidify their sense of place and belonging.  Speaking of which…

I will conclude by sharing that we began today with a visit from an older student at our school who has a condition that leaves her without hair.  This makes her rather conspicuous and socially vulnerable, and so she has chosen to visit–with her teacher–all the classes to speak openly about this condition and make it easier for the children to see beyond her appearance.  I could not have been prouder of our Grade Ones.  They listened in utter and heartfelt respect, and agreed that she was very brave to do this.  We honoured her with a particularly reverent rendition of our Knight’s Verse, and after she left we had a lovely and mature conversation.  Truly, some big thinking to begin the day.

Making Sense of English: an overdue introduction

For this post, I wanted to step back and look at the fundamentals of what we are doing in our exploration of the English language (a language sadly maligned by misunderstanding and misinformation).   For years, teaching Grades 4 and 5, I would tell my students, Sorry, English doesn’t make any sense, we’ll just have to muddle through.  I expect many of us were told or came to believe this as we were growing up.   The fact is, throughout school systems children are taught that English is full of “tricky words”, “exceptions”, “rule breakers” and so on–words for which their was no explanation, that simply had to be memorized and endured.  Keep reading.

About eight years ago, I was introduced to Real Spelling, a linguistically accurate resource for teaching the English writing system, and it was like the lights had just been switched on.  I discovered that my sense of the language had been quite backwards.  It was if I had been teaching cello, saying, Sorry, I don’t have any understanding of this strange instrument, but neither does anyone else--and then spending years banging the instrument with the bow.  I am no longer banging the instrument (or my head).

English spelling makes sense:  it is highly ordered and contains very few exceptions.

There, I’ve said it.  Imagine anyone suggesting such a thing!  It turns out linguists, the scientists of the language, have long known this.  You don’t have to–probably shouldn’t–believe it (yet).  But I do invite you to imagine how learning the language–and, lucky us in Grade One, learning from the very beginning–would be different, easier, if this were true.  It is my hope that through sharing the investigations we do in our class, you will come to share my faith in this extraordinary system.  Happily, the children have no reason to doubt this assertion, but I hope they keep trying to disprove it!  (“Hey, Mr. Caldwell!  I thought you said…”)

Inquiry-based learning:   The second part of my journey has also come through my dear friend Pete Bowers, who took the Real Spelling resource, and really developed a methodology for exploring the language, as well as providing the research.  Through Structured Word Inquiry, we always ask why a word is spelled the way it is. We do this through looking at its structure.  As Abdul said, “We take apart words and we put them back together.”  We always look for its base, and we use our knowledge of suffixes and prefixes, and of graphemes to help us.  (Our students understand two fundamental truths:  that letters can work on their own or in teams (graphemes, including digraphs and trigraphs) to represent sounds (phonemes);  and that many graphemes can represent more than one sound.  Rather than being a problem, this is seen as a normal and useful function of the language.  See our work with homophones, below).

When we discover a word that has a spelling we cannot initially explain, we become word scientists:  we investigate it.   We take the knowledge we already have, and we create hypotheses, test our ideas, find connections and patterns and new questions, make discoveries, expand our understanding!  In this way, we not only learn how our language works–rather deeply supporting our reading and our writing–but we also learn how to learn.  By giving the children ownership of this learning, guided along by some of the choices I make about priority or direction, they are more engaged and, I believe, more likely to remember what they have learned.  And I hope it encourages them to be active, questioning investigators in all things!


For weeks, we collected words where the silent <e> was dropped, then we sorted them by suffix and then analyzed the suffixes. Voila! A clear, consistent pattern.

Some of our investigations are more formalized:  we’ll spend some time collecting similar examples, or I’ll set aside time for an activity that helps them draw a conclusion.  (You can see the results of our work on the question of How can we know when silent <e> gets dropped? in this poster).   At other times, a question will be asked–Why is there a silent <e> in <have>? for example, or Why does <two> have a <w>?–and I might share a rule (if I know it) or leave the question out there until we find some clues in our other experience.  I’ll share two quick on-the-fly applications from last week:

  • Reyad came across the word <living> in a book he was reading, but did not immediately recognize it, and was not getting it from context.  First step:  find the base (the single largest unit of meaning).   He did this by removing what he guessed was the suffix <-ing>, leaving him with <liv>.  He now thought he knew the word, but was troubled by the spelling.  He now applied two pieces of understanding: no English word ends with <v>, and this is avoided through the convention of applying a silent <e> (previous examples discussed include <love> and <have>);  and, a silent <e> is dropped when adding a vowel suffix.  And so, he concluded correctly, the spelling must be <live>.  I note how this attention to structure helps to unlock meaning in reading–all of this process happens in seconds, and it happens all the time.  When your child is reading, among the strategies you may prompt them with is, How is the word built?  (This could mean, What is the base?,  Do you see any suffixes? and/or Are there any digraphs or trigraphs you recognize?).
  • IMG_3359A question that floats about is why there is a <w> in the word <two>.  Recently, we were discussing the word <twice> because it turns out several of our words in the hall appear that many times (oops).  How many times is that?  “Two times!”  Hmmm.  What do the words <twice> and <two> share?  Meaning, and spelling!  Together we compiled the following list of words that–by no accident–share the meaning and the <w> of <two>:   twice, twin, twenty, twelve, between.   I expect there may be more–what do you think about <twine> and <twirl>?  The theme here is one of etymology–that words that are related in meaning or history very often share aspects of spelling.  This, too, is a normal and helpful function of the language.

So, I don’t expect you to believe the bold statement above, yet.  I hope this gets you thinking about why words are spelled the way they are.  You may find that you cannot help but begin your own investigation (feel free to share).  I trust that as you do, you will find your faith in the highly sensible English language grows more and more.  Want more information?  There are links throughout this post that will take you to a treasure trove, as well as the awesome blogs in the sidebar.  (Want less information?  You probably stopped reading a long time ago).


Finally, in this video, made in my class two years ago by Pete, you can glimpse some of the investigating, the attention to word structure, the process of discovery (especially at the very end).  In particular, notice the highly important habit of spelling aloud in a way that highlights structure.  One of the basic prompts I give children when they are stuck on a word is “spell it” as Reyad did independently, above.  In doing so, they pay attention to the structure and many times unlock the word, while I, beside them, am able to instantly able to assess their understanding.  I will say of this video that my practice is evolving, and just this year I have shifted from using the term “letter team” to the more accurate terms “digraph”, “trigraph” and so on.  But this is still reflective of much of what goes on.