Following the tracks of words

Happy June!  I’ve really slacked off on the blog in the last while!  But, it’s report card writing time, which is usually when I do lots of neglected tasks, like cleaning my desk…and my car, and my basement, and my driveway…so, I might as well put in a little time catching up here also.

I want to share three recent examples of word investigations that have flowed in the last little while.  I share them as illustrations of several things:

  1. I am not always in control of where our learning goes.  In fact, I have come to appreciate the root meaning of learning as “following a track”.
  2. I am learning too.  A week–a day!–hardly goes by when some question or discovery from the Grade Ones does not confound or surprise me.  I choose not to believe this reflects poorly on me for not knowing everything, but rather that it reflects well on the small humans for being such big thinkers.
  3. Grade Ones are Big Thinkers (but we don’t all have to be thinking about the same thing).  One of the things I like about this investigative approach, and the openness of it, is that learners are able to initiate and follow learning paths that fit with both their interest and their ability.  Thus, we can meet our learners where they are.  This isn’t strictly speaking a “high or low” thing.  Certainly, many of the children are not ready to initiate or pursue some of these investigations on their own.  But I think they all benefit from having access to the shared experience of learningLeading me to…
  4. Many times, the process is as important as the content.  As you’ll see below, nobody’s life will be saved by knowing these words or the stories behind them.  But, I am optimistic that lives might be improved by learning how to learn.


A couple of weeks ago, as often happens, two children brought almost the same question to me within about an hour.  The question was, “We know about homophones [words that share pronunciation, but differ in meaning and spelling] and we know about homographs [words that share spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings], but what about words that have different meanings and the same spellings, but are pronounced differently?”   Madisyn had found <wind> and <wind>, and then someone else–none of us can now remember who–turned up with <close> and <close>.  We brought this interesting question to our whole class circle time (which led to the discovery of a very interesting homophone pair).   close close I didn’t know the answer, and so shared our investigation on Real Spellers, a website devoted to such pursuits where I knew an answer would await.  (You may follow that stream of discussion here even just to see how far such a discussion can travel).  It turns out, these are called <heteronyms>.  For many children, just having this conversation (and the one that follows) was a chance to highlight and reinforce their sense that different graphemes can represent more than one phone  (e.g. see the <s> in the words at left).  For others these may reinforce the accurate spelling of a given word.  For others, understanding of the word is deepened.


Ahmed came to me  with a great question I had never considered before:  “I have seen the word <O.K.> and I have seen it written <okay> but which is the right way to spell it?”  Brilliant!  He even had two books in hand to demonstrate the different spellings.  I confess: the smarty-pants in me immediately thought I knew which one was proper but I also thought, what a strange word.  So, Ahmed and I went off to the Online Etymology Dictionary to see what we could find out.  This is what we found:


oll korrect!”  Hilarious!  Ahmed and I read this together as best we could and chatted about this crazy history.  We have shared it with the class.  I am not sure they really get the story, but there is so much else we get out of this!  We have seen that words can be played with.  (I think they did at some level grasp the irony of us investigating the proper spelling of a word that it turns out is based upon a purposeful misspelling).  We have glimpsed, again, that words have stories inside them, they have history, they came from somewhere.  And, this can help us to understand these words.  (Also, importantly, our teacher doesn’t know everything!)   You may find one or two declaring “Oll Korrect”.


In the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the features of non-fiction text.  I have this little book called Frog and Toad Facts that I love because it contrasts so nicely with our beloved Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel (among the greatest works of English literature).  This has been shared reading, where we are all exploring the same text together, in this case through our cool mounted digital camera, the Elmo.  As we read, two of our tasks has been to keep track of what we learn from this non-fiction text, and what questions we have.  Well, it turns out, toads have poison glands behind their bulging eyes.   And so, What’s a gland?”

I provided what I thought a passable explanation, but then a relatively new thing occurred:  three children–Reyad, Jadis and Abdul, as I recollect–ran to grab our dictionary!   The dictionary is a fairly new resource for us, as the entries can be a bit overwhelming in terms of vocabulary, but they are drawn to the secrets it holds.  I don’t keep dumbed-down “children’s” dictionaries around, though, and you’re about to see why.

So, we placed the dictionary under the Elmo so we could all view the entry for <gland> they had quite capably found.  Predictably, the definition was challenging to make sense of, but then someone shouted out “Latin!”  Now this surprised me a little, and may surprise you.  I couldn’t say for sure that we had ever discussed the presence of Latin in English, but there it was.  So I explained that this was the part of the entry that told the story of where this word came from, and what it meant in its root language.  And so, the root meaning of <gland> is…



It wasn’t until after a conversation with our friend Old Grouch that I thought about my own children’s often-enlarged tonsils, those mysterious, germ-absorbing glands in the back of our throats.  I frankly would have said they looked more like raspberries, but I think “acorn” will do.  And now, they’ve had another glimpse of the wonderful discoveries held in a good dictionary.  (So-called “children’s” dictionaries, aside from having a woefully small collection of words, almost never contain the roots of those words.  The publishers imagine children aren’t ready).


Is the word <gland> core vocabulary, or one of the top sight words necessary in Grade One?  Of course not.  Do we need to know the history of <o.k.>?  Not at all. 

Do we, though, want our children to be actively engaged with the richness of their language?  More broadly, is it important that children learn how to pursue their questions down unexpected avenues?  I think so, on both counts.  

Off to clean my driveway…er, finish my report cards!


3 thoughts on “Following the tracks of words

  1. The post is simply excellent; it radiates an understanding of real scholarship in every phrase. Your merry band of real students is giving a richly orthographic sense to the saying ‘tall oaks from little acorns grow’.

    I urge you to post this rich article integrally in the Real Spellers string that is discussing the pedagoguerish oxymoron ‘scope and sequence’.

  2. Pingback: Reflections | smallhumansthinkbig

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