"Misunderestimating" students

I heard a great story recently. A tutor was preparing a lesson for a student and the word <cosmos> came up. A particular spelling concept involved in analyzing this word happened to be relatively new to the tutor and she was not sure that her student was ready for that kind of content.

After discussing the issue with a colleague the tutor took the risk and presented the word to her student. In a matter-of-fact manner the student suggested it was probably related to <cosmic>. Perhaps the student perceived the <-ic> as a likely suffix. That structural insight might have provided the motivation to consider what a common base might be.

And it was the nature of the base which the tutor had feared was too advanced.

(I'm being intentionally vague about the structure of <cosmos> for reasons that will be clear shortly.)

  • It is worth emphasizing that the newness of a concept to a teacher has nothing to do with a child's readiness to learn that concept.

The bound base is one good example of a basic morphological concept which can be taught very effectively with word sums and matrices in much younger grades that is usually presumed by teachers who are new to bound bases, matrices and word sums.

It is important to be careful about overloading students with concepts for which they are not prepared. The story I see over and over, however, is how confidently young children deal with spelling concepts most teachers (including myself) first assumed to be too advanced. For just a few examples, consider the level of spelling system knowledge and critical thinking skills illustrated by this Grade 2 student, this Grade 1 class, or this Grade 7 student.

Why not learn as much as we can with our students?

I do understand the hesitency teachers have at diving into new content before they feel confident in their own understanding. For that reason I wanted to offer a suggestion for an "inquiry-led" structured word inquiry, with this Real Spellers forum as a back-up. Why not investigate this word <cosmos> with your students with the knowledge that co-learners in the Real Spellers community are here to offer support. If you and your students are unable to work out hypotheses that you can confirm, you know you can ask for help from this community.

I do have my own current working hypothesis of the structure of the word <cosmos> and a few relatives, but I have avoided testing those hypotheses yet. I want to do that work as questions come up from students and teachers who take on this challenge with me (and whoever else) wants to join.

Here is the analogy I have in mind for this challenge.  We can use this Real Spellers forum as a virtual conference space for language labs (classrooms) all over the world. The supervisors (teachers) of these labs can guide investigations with the help of their graduate students (elementary students). As in graduate school, students help push knowledge forward by asking questions their supervisor might not think of, and the supervisor helps push knowledge forward by guiding wise ways to address those questions.

When any of our "language lab supervisors" run into questions they need help with, they can guide their students in how to go about framing their question scientifically so that it can be posed to the Real Spellers community. Getting stuck turns into an opporunity to review precisely what their language lab understands so far and what it is that they need help with. That same criteria (careful articulation of what you know and what you want to know) works well for any question -- big or small. Preparing to publish such questions on Real Spellers may provide extra motivation for our "language labs" to practice presenting their questions as precisely and scientifically as they can.

Any "language lab" that wishes is also invited to prepare a final presentation of their learning and remaining questions to post in this string of posts on Real Spellers so that the rest of the community can consider and learn from that hard work.

Starter resources:

The chart “Stuck on a Spelling?” offers productive questions to start any such investigation.  The “Morpheme Tree” below that provides some of the terms important to the morphological aspects of this investigation.



Feel free to email me directly (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) if you have questions that you do not want to post publicly. But also feel free to ask what may seem to be simple obvious questions in Real Spellers. I hope this investigation is one which invites novice and vetran spelling scientists!

As you work through the questions in the "Stuck on a Spelling?" chart, here are a few specificly related questions that may help you. Address as few or as many of these as you wish. I'm sure other interesting questions will occur too:

  • Can you create word sums for <cosmos> and <cosmic> that you can defend? 
  • What morphological and/or etymological relationships do these words have, if any? 
  • What is the underlying denotation of the root (or roots) of these words, and how does that relate to the connotation of these words?
  • Can you explain why these words use a <c> grapheme for the initial /k/ phoneme of <cosmos> and <cosmic>? Why is this same grapheme used for the final /k/ of <cosmic>?


I look forward to what we may all learn from exploring the spelling <cosmos>!