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!


To the Top of the Mountain

To the top of the mountain the brave knight rides.
To the valley below, where the dwarf resides.
To the shadows behind where the dragon hides.
To the waves out at sea, to ride on the tides.

Though it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “sit down and sit still” schooling, one of the things I try and embed in our literacy and mathematics learning is movement.  (For me as a Primary teacher, this falls in the category of Ongoing Learning and Striving).   There are lots of reasons for incorporating movement:

  • It’s fun!
  • Children are going to move anyway, so we might as well try and put this energy to good use.
  • Children at this age already learn verse and song almost effortlessly, and adding movement creates a kind of “body memory” that can be helpful with learning things like skip counting or times tables.
  • Specific kind of physical movement can both mirror and nurture important brain development.

This is hardly revolutionary–every nursery rhyme or skipping chant grows from this notion.  But one of the things that I have taken from Waldorf Education and various articles (just head to Google) is that “crossing the midline” is not something very young children can do at all, and is not easy for some children even by ages six, seven or beyond.   This capacity can support ease of reading and writing, and some children who cannot do so can struggle with these tasks.   Midline-crossing movements include touching elbows to opposite knees, or one’s opposite ear by reaching over top of one’s head.  They can also include drawing exercises such as drawing a lemniscate (a horizontal figure eight).  As I said, I am still learning about this.

The video below is an example of the kind of movement we engage in (with some midline crossing–I wish I’d added a line that took us figure eight under our knees).   As the verse became “embodied” it was then one that I wrote on the board for everyone to explore through reading (as in this post).   I made the video a few weeks ago when we were just learning this set of fairly complex movements.  Last week we presented it beautifully and seamlessly to our Pencil Pals when they visited.  We even started with the added trick of going from sitting to standing with the beanbags on our heads!  (Would have been great to film all that!  But no matter:  the point is the doing, not the performing).  Watch the yellow beanbag!

How to start the day: homophoning

IMG_5415A quick post about how my Monday morning started.  Among the usual cheerful greetings, two students arrived bursting with these similar messages:

  • Ethan:  “Mr. Caldwell!  I found homophones!”
  • Sophie:  “Mr. Caldwell!  I found a new ‘question’ word, and it is a homophone!”

This is how you spent your weekend?  (But who am I kidding?  This is how I spend my weekends too!)  The cool thing is the work that follows these discoveries.  Typically the children have “found” these words in their speech, rather than their reading (though this happens too).  It’s a great test of their grasp of spelling conventions when I challenge them, either individually or as a class to “come up with two reasonable spellings.”

Above, you can see that Ethan did just that (love his little illustrations on this tiny sticky note).  The class was quick to pounce on <ay> in the middle of the word.  Azylynn began to propose a rule about this never happening, but lacking evidence, retracted this and suggested instead that it was unlikely.  (This in turn raised the question, “Are there any English bases that have an <ay> digraph anywhere but at the end?”  Folks at home:  you can play along!  Can you think of any?  Send ’em in!).  I was quick to emphasize that Ethan’s proposed spelling was certainly reasonable, and that it would have been quite readable if it had appeared in his writing somewhere.  I stress this with them, because I do not wish to stunt anyone’s written communication with the sense that accurate spelling is the priority:  the priority is always the idea being communicated.

Sophie brought forth an addition to our collection of <wh> “question” words.  Last week, we had discussed the spelling of the word <who> and how its <wh> is a marker of its meaning connection to the other question words.  (They were quick to suggest that <how> should follow this pattern, but agreed that *<whow> was just too confusing).  And so, we worked through the spellings of <which> and <witch>, introducing the trigraph <tch> to some who had not seen it before.

Nothing earth-shattering, but a good example of how the children drive the learning with their questions and discoveries.  I am reflecting upon what it is about homophones that so catches the children’s interest; curious to know anyone else’s thoughts.

To this I will add, finally (to this less-short post than promised), a link to a project by a Grade One class in California who are attempting to compile “all 441” homophones.  I hope we can be in touch with them, but I have already passed along Deanna’s <world> and <whirled>, as I didn’t see it on their database.  I am not driven to duplicate this endeavour–happier to find these in some context–but it is kind of fun!

Guiding Reading

I wanted to share some bits of video of me reading with Abdul and with Azylynn last week.  Right up front, I’ll say these are the first videos I ever made in this way, holding a borrowed iPad that I was just figuring out, so this certainly affected my focus.   Also, it is not some pinnacle of reading instruction–I am still learning and honing my practice.  (And though I won’t film like this very often, it will certainly help me to think about what I might change or improve).   But hopefully it helps give a sense of the process we’re engaged in and the language we’re using.   Thanks to Abdul and Azylynn!  (There’s no particular reason I filmed these two–just who was on my schedule the day I had the tool).

Abdul works hard on this book, which holds some challenges.  But he applies many very effective strategies for making meaning here.  A few things to note, in terms of skills we’re working on:

  • Notice how I prompt Abdul to “find the base” and how easily he does so by identifying and covering the suffix.  This is so useful to reducing intimidating larger words and finding their central meaning.
  • Yes, looking at the pictures is allowed, and a useful strategy at this stage.
  • Notice how after he struggled through a passage, I had him read it again.   This is to allow for increased fluency and understanding and hopefully confidence.
  • Asking him to “spell” a word is not a pop spelling quiz.  What I am asking is for him to spell the word in a way that reveals its structure.  Listen to how he spells <swinging>. clearly enunciating and separating the base from suffix, or how he clearly says “double e” to show he recognizes that digraph.  But I also find out he is not completely solid with the <kn> digraph (though he’s seen it as you can tell!).
  • Making guesses like <knight> are really natural in early readers, but the question “Does it make sense here?” reminds us that sense is what we’re after.
  • What else am I noting as we go?  There is some work to do with consonant clusters such as <sw>, and some common words like <from> or <her> that he is still working too hard at.  We can address these separately.

Does this seem a bit painful?  I don’t think it actually is.  This is not “independent” reading for this student at this time.  This is “instructional” reading:  at the outside of his comfortable range.  And I’ll be honest, watching this I might have helped him along a bit more–maybe told him the sound represented by <kn> or just said <Daddy> to keep us rolling along.  But by the next page, he was rolling anyway and completed the book very comfortably.

A similar process ensues with Azylynn, who works as hard and as cleverly as her classmate.

Each of my little questions is a quick assessment and an opportunity to reinforce concepts.  As with Abdul, I make choices about what I spend time on and what I ignore.  We had just explored patterns in doubling final consonants, so I spend some time there.

What do I learn from listening here?  She knows her <sc> cluster, which helped her to discern the word <scat>; her high-frequency words have grown more solid; and she is applying a range of solid strategies.  I don’t know why I asked her to spell <weeding>, but she clearly revealed her understanding of the structure of this word, distinguishing digraph <ee> as well as the suffix <ing>.   She got stuck on the word <right>:   I might have prompted her with “What makes sense?” instead of asking her to spell it–either can be effective.  Did you hear how she spelled <right>?  She recognizes the trigraph <igh>, but doesn’t remember the phoneme it is representing.   Finally, this is hardly rich literature, but I am also checking in along the way that she is comprehending the story.  (She is).

Thanks again to these students.  Of course I never share anything for comparative purposes–every student is progressing, and at their own pace.  Hopefully this provides a little insight into one piece of our literacy instruction

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.