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Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900 by Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Below are more examples of words that students have investigated independently using the ‘concept ladder’ framework to make notes about a word from our year long list (see earlier post Listomania to Listohpilia) to find examples from fiction, the past and the present that can help students, after analyzing the word into morphemes and locating the root, think more deeply about the word under investigation.

Fellow ‘word bloggers’ Skot Caldwell and Dan Allen and I recently discussed how easy it would be to create a distorted image of our classrooms. It is tempting to create an impression that all students in the class have grasped all aspects of morphological analysis and understand where and how to locate roots and related words. While this may convey a favorable impression of me as word goddess in the classroom with students taking in my words of wisdom dropping like pearls before their attentive, enthusiastic presence, the reality is often different. There is of course variation in levels of understanding as Dan has stated about his class. What I have come to appreciate is this fact of variation and error-making seen in this assignment where students talk independently about their analysis of words. This is a ‘portal’ into student understanding, a glimpse of where they may be struggling or where there may be misunderstandings.

Watch the students below: Emma, Jonathan and Vistar. Emma has a solid grasp at this stage of the year of morphemes, roots and related words. She is able to connect this word to find examples from literature and history and the present. Today we all examined this root with Emma leading us through and we felt that her analysis of the word conformity as <con+form+–it(e)+y> may be peeling back the morphemes a little too far.We used the information about –ite as a suffix from The Online Etymology dictionary here and about -ity here to guide us. Conformity, we know, is an abstract concept and thus we reasoned -ity seems to be the more appropriate suffix.

Jonathan is new to the class having been at school for only a trimester. I am impressed with how much he has understood from listening to, working with and watching his peers. I was highly amused listening to his valiant efforts in getting his tongue around the Old English root (yes, my laughter here is unreasonable as I mangle and stumble over all Latin and Old English roots!) However, today Jonathan felt he could fairly accurately spot from our pairs of words those that would be more likely to spring from OE roots. Jonathan said, based on our list of twenty words, that those from Old English seem ‘more direct, less formal and less fancy’. The Latinate ones ‘seem longer, feel different in the mouth and sound less hard’. Jonathan’s video reveals that he needs clarification when representing the morphemes in the analytic form. He needs to use word sums to show his analysis. I also need to draw his attention to spell out the letters when discussing the elements, as they are not pronounced until reassembled as a word.

Jonathan: ruthless

Vistar’s video shows confusion about connotation. What does he understand about this term? His reading of the root information was illuminating to follow as he doesn’t read and try to understand, rather he is a ‘leaper’! Vistar leaps onto any word made red in the entry following the clues to other words and swiftly snares the last item as the root because it is at the end of the entry! He doesn’t bother to try to make sense of the information.

Vistar: torture

See below as I discuss and work through this with him an attempt to clear away some misconceptions.

Torture:Part 1

Torture: Part 2 ( apologies for the two minute overlap of  the first part in this Video Part 2)

These video clips are windows into student thinking showing the direction I need to take, to make me consider what Vistar and Jonathan and Emma need to experience and investigate in order to clarify their thinking.  I do not agree totally with Stephen Deadelus’s statement that errors are ‘volitional’- I lean more to Real Spellings’s statement that “No one makes a mistake on purpose”. However, I shall clip Stephen’s statement: ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.’ (James Joyce, Ulysses) to emblazon on my wall: “Errors are the portals to discovery’. Thank-you and apologies James Joyce.

‘Portal’ appeared in English in the late 14th century coming from Latin porta gate not as I had initially thought portare to carry. It is linked to the Old English ‘port’- and apparently there two ports- Old English harbor, haven and the Old French port: harbor or mountain pass yet both of these come from Latin portus. The roots suggest passages, gateways and doors. I had thought to use images of the great portals- the Ishtar Gate more than 12 metres high gaudily decorated with dragons and bulls or the Benin palace gates yet Danish painter Hammershøi’s’s paintings reflect portals of a different kind. His paintings show portals literally – doors, windows, passages leading to half glimpsed rooms, and are figurative portals into quiet, still interiors, tranquil in their grey, green and still blues, simple calmness and light. It is only when we go through the portals, taking the time to open the doors and explore the errors that we make discoveries and understandings.

Read more and see more about the understated Vilhelm Hammershøi here: and an analysis of Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams here in The Independent.