The Fabulous New Spring Collections

A little brown bulb lay asleep in the ground.
In his little brown nightie he made not a sound.
King Winter, he roared and he raged overhead,
But the little brown bulb never stirred in his bed.
But when Spring came tiptoeing over the lea
With finger to lips, as soft as can be,
The little brown bulb just lifted his head,
Slipped off his nightie, and jumped out of bed!

Spring has really sprung (though King Winter seems to be raging again today).  I’ve been terribly slow to get a new post up, both because there has been a lot going on that has kept me from sitting down to write, and because there has been so much going on that I wasn’t sure what to write.  Now I have a bunch of stuff I want to share!  Here’s a start…  

cropped-img_3522.jpgHere is a picture from a recent activity, reflective of the process of making collections in our word study.  I’ve referred to this process before, but lately I’ve been reflecting upon the practice:  what it does for us as a learning tool; whether it is equally effective for everyone (hardly anything is); and whether I am overly reliant upon this approach.  (In other words, maybe I need some other ideas).  This is investigative learning, and as such open-ended:  though as the teacher I may have a particular learning goal in mind, the route we take and the learning that occurs can often have surprises.  I like to think we are engaging in word science–while learning how to learn in a broader sense also.

Gather the Data:  In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling the need to assess and perhaps reinforce our understanding of some of the phonology we’ve explored this year.  We have covered a lot–including the many graphemes that can represent the vowel phonemes.  But assessment suggested that we needed to solidify our grasp of the “long <e>” phoneme.  So, I asked the students to collect words that had this phoneme.  (I try to let these “collecting” periods simmer for some time, as I generally don’t want the act of collecting to completely take over the central point of reading:  that is, comprehension.  Also, it gives everyone a chance to participate in their own time and capacity.  In this case, though, we had an intense period of collecting from books the children had already read that day or week).

Sort the Data:  Next day, we sorted our words, creating categories according to what graphemes seemed to represent the “long <e>”.  Several surprises:  <ey>, <ie> and <i> were all discovered, though some questions exist.  New categories had to be created

Analyze the Data:  An open question to the students:  what can we observe about our chart (which now also had the appearance of a graph)?   Here is some of what they shared:

  • <ee> and <ea> were by far the most common graphemes.
  • <e> was almost exclusively limited to small function words like <be> and <we>.   The words <behind> and <because> raised questions about whether these were in fact compounds, or whether these words had a <be-> prefix.  Someone noted the word <idea> and wondered about its structure.  (Still thinking about that one).
  • <y> seems to only occur in the final position of words, and is the most likely candidate in this position.  All examples had more than one syllable.  In many but not all cases it is the suffixes <-y> or <-ly>.  The accidental inclusion of the word <why> reminded us that this grapheme can represent another phoneme as well.  This got us thinking about whether one-syllable words ending in <y> always represented the long <i>.
  • <ey> appeared in words like <key> and <hockey>.  (As well as, repeatedly, in Reyad’s name).
  • <ie> appears to be a suffix in the word <nightie> and so we tried to think of others and came up with <movie> and <cookie>.  Still thinking about that one as well, keeping our eyes open.
  • Noting that some of our data came in the form of names—Darcy, Ethan, Oresti, Sophie, and Reyad–we were reminded that names don’t always follow English rules or conventions.  This is especially true when we have children from non-English speaking countries like Greece or Egypt.  So, another open question:  Can <i> represent the long <e> in an English word?  We’re keeping our eyes open for this one also.  Update, May 15th:  Today, Ethan found the word <police>, so there does seem to be evidence that this <i> grapheme can represent the long /e/ sound.  Clearly it isn’t common.  We’ll be watching for more.  And, we just completed our investigation of <c>, allowing us to understand why there needs to be a final silent <e> in <police>. 
  • I note to myself that we did not find a single example of a word with initial or medial <ie> or <ei>.  Weird.

What does this process do for us?  I think it makes the children more attentive to the structures of the words.  I have to believe that this kind of focus will ultimately help them learn these words.  Also, they seem to appreciate the ownership they have over this process:  all of these words are their words; not just some list I handed them.  This process of analysis will hopefully reinforce as well as reveal concepts that will support their reading and their writing:  when attempting to write a word—<dream> or <monkey> for instance—they are now able to consider which grapheme is most likely in that particular position in the word.  Such a process does seem to afford children an opportunity to be engaged at a variety of levels:  for some, this was an opportunity to be re-introduced to some basic graphemes and words;  others were able to stretch into new areas of inquiry.  And what I really like is that these investigations generate new investigations!

The teacher challenge with activities such as this is to ensure that I can assess individual as well as group understanding.  Thus, follow-up is required.

Current collections on the go:

  • We’ve been collecting words with <c> in them, and sorting them according to whether they represent /s/ or /k/.  This week, we will analyze this data, to discover a useful pattern.  (Happily, children have also discovered at least two words that don’t fit:  <special> and <ferocious>).IMG_3855
  • We’re collecting words that end with a <k> or with a <ck>, and will soon analyze these to see if we can find a pattern.  (As usual, there is one).
  • [Note: this is an edit, as I forgot to include this at first]  We’ve been collecting verbs that do not follow the suffixing pattern of adding <-ed> when creating a past tense, and finding this quite a bit more common than expected.  Examples include run/ran, swim/swam, and so on.

Many years ago, I had a spring job at an outdoor education centre for which I considered myself wholly unqualified.  I couldn’t reliably name a bird or a tree.  My friend (who got me the job) helped me to see that our main purpose was to open the children’s eyes:  help them to see, and to wonder.   She was right, and lots of delightful, shared learning followed.  I think this is still what I am trying to do.

Finally, there are a couple of  links below to other class blogs of teachers and classes whose work I admire.  A recent post (and all her others, actually) by Ann Whiting about her Grade 7 class in Kuala Lumpur provides an “inspiring” glimpse of where an attentiveness to the science of words can lead!


8 thoughts on “The Fabulous New Spring Collections

  1. This post is exemplary.

    Where structural learning about spelling is going on there are collections of words that will be part of the ‘raw material’ from which we can construct, test and develop hypotheses about the spelling system. The Real Spelling Tool Box employs the concept of the ‘evidence bank’ for such collections.

    Real spellers always look for essential concepts and processes that underlie and account for the spelling system. The ‘evidence’ for these concepts and processes is ‘evident’ in every text that we see – the base element of evidence is, of course, the twin base ‘vide / vise’ “see”.

    Your young real spellers are collecting, sorting and analysing evidence from what they see in text itself.


    To resource your own understanding of the structure of ‘idea’, you can download a draft film called ‘In Search of the Medium-Sized Idea’ from this link.

    It is part of a ripost to a currently fashionable buzz-system that peddles such terms as ‘enduring understanding’ (if its isn’t ‘enduring’, then whatever it is, it isn’t an ‘under + STAND + ing’), together with Donald Duck’s catchphrase “What’s the big idea?”, and the hallucinating notion of ‘designing’ backwards (perhaps, then, this system could be called ‘Ngised’!).

    Your merry band of orthographers are most definitely moving forwards!

  2. My dear Grouch, thank you once again! The film is delightfully informative and hilarious. I was strung happily along: at each point that I had a new question–“Wait, what about ‘ideal’??–there you were. Masterful, from the master.

  3. Skot: I loved your classroom discoveries and your bullet points for explanations making it all very clear, easy to follow. You seem to have many workers and not one chief! Brilliantly done.
    Thanks, Mary

  4. Thank you so much for sharing not only the learning of your students — but your learning about their learing, Skot.

    A quick look at the photograph at the top of your post, and a brief (ha ha!) reading of your text makes it clear that the experiences with print you are offering your students has motivated them to investigate for important structures inside written words. What is the source of that motivation? Understanding.

    (For anyone wanting to investigate what the grapheme for the “long e” phoneme is in “experiences” here’s the word sum: ex + per + i + ence/ + es.)

    The scientific investigations your students do to find the ways different phonemes are represented foster a habbit of developing and testing hypotheses about structures in words. Children get to explore, but they are also guided by the real structures within words.

    Students make mistakes by including a grapheme that doesn’t fit — and thus they learn that that grapheme can represent more than phoneme.

    Students find a word like “idea” that raises a question for you about the structure of the word “idea” and now the students get the joy of raising a question that makes their teacher think.

    You are not practicing inquiry with lessons for which you know all the answers — you are actively doing inquiry with them.

    Recently I’ve been asking teachers to consider two questions as a means of assessing the way they have taught spelling for most of their career, and to contrast there responses to those questions with the responses after working with Real Spelling and/or structured word inquiry:

    1) What was the last rich question your students have asked you about spelling that was sparked by your instruction?

    2) What intersting new fact about how our writing system works have you yourself learned, or what interesting spelling-meaning connection have you yourself made as the result of your spelling instruction you have offered your students?

    I’m not sure there is a better way for us to assess our instruction than to consider the quality of the questions that instruction prompts.

    I can’t wait to share your post with the teachers I’m working with right now!



  5. ‘Help them to see and wonder.’. and Skot this is the gift you are giving your kids. There is so much within this process of sorting, classifying, gathering data and reflecting on what you are doing that is crucial for learners of all ages. The hunt for the long graphemes is engaging, active and empowering.. look at the flurry of hands as the kids cluster around the chart so keen to share their discoveries. As you stated, this is not just about ‘spelling’ but helping them ‘learn how to learn’. I am so impressed by your reflections on this process. At no stage in any of your posts do you ever claim to have ‘the method” or suggest that you are ‘an expert’ of teaching, that you have reached the pinnacle … are open, reflective and doubtful and in embodying and modelling these attitudes, you are, therefore, going deeply into words and beyond words to become a co-learner with your students, an instigator of critical reasoning and an ‘awakener’ ( is there such a word?) to the joy and love in learning. You show that this is done through research, analysis, and that this is often social and collaborative. You, Skot, with your questions, doubts, uncertainties about process and in allowing collaborative ‘investigation’ to be the linchpin of your approach to word study, encourage your students to think critically and reflectively. They will be better readers, writers, students and ‘small humans’ for this.

  6. I really appreciate the reflective tone in your posts, Skot. You genuinely want to do what’s best for the students and are therefore constantly questioning the effectiveness of various activities. I also love how ALL of what you’ve done with your first graders is applicable to students in the Grade 5 classroom. We’ve done the very investigations you’ve outlined in this post! I am hoping to partner with a first grade buddy class next school year to do regular Real Script activities and the orthography investigations that inevitably accompany them. It will be valuable for the first graders but even more so for the fifth grade students.
    Hope all is well with your family!

  7. Thank you, friends, for all your comments.

    Perhaps it is my own compulsive need to question everything I do (or see, or read) that makes me suitable to the task of teaching in this way, where students are invited to question and hypothesize. I suspect/know many of you are the same.

    One of the things I have questioned is whether these very new readers will be overwhelmed–and potentially confused or delayed in their full understanding–by the hugeness of what we cover through this work. I do see this. Some would say that it is better to give them less, ensure they fully grasp it, and then broaden. The problems with this I see are, a) the language is complex, so pretending it is otherwise seems false; and, b) it is difficult to limit what they will see, and therefore wonder about, so again there seems a kind of dishonesty to pretending there isn’t more. And who are we to say what amount they can handle, or, more mysteriously, what they will understand more or less easily? Evidence would suggest that this varies.

    As the school year draws to a close and I am therefore having to measure against benchmarks and so forth, I see that many of my students do not have an utterly solid grasp of some of what we have covered. This is hardly surprising. But I am reassured by a couple of things. Firstly, when I read with them, I see a capacity in all of them, without exception, to identify the structure of words–even if they still need some reminding to look. For instance, they might get stuck on the word ‘staying’, but with a prompt to spell it aloud, I can clearly hear that they recognize an ‘ay’ digraph, and a suffix ‘ing’. Some still need a nudge to recall what the ‘ay’ is likely to represent. Yesterday, a child brought to us the word ‘extinguisher’ and so, because I had just been working on this process with a couple of emerging readers who were still stuck on a letter-by-letter ‘sounding out’ that was not working for them (where do they get this?), I asked the class to simply identify everything they could about the word, wherever they found it (ie. not necessarily working from left to right). Together, identifying digraphs, suffixes and prefixes, we revealed the word, a working stem (the base eludes us) from which we could build related words, and our own fearless capacity for taming “dragon” words.

    Secondly, I am confident that the structures and patterns we have explored will be reinforced over and over in their future experience, because they are true. So they will simply have the opportunity to say–over and over, I hope–“Oh, yeah–I remember that.”

  8. Pingback: The Orthographic Word Wall: Grade One | smallhumansthinkbig

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