1659 Map of Australia by Thévenot after Blaeu, from Tasman’s voyages of 1642-4.

Early explorers charted what they saw, but just because something is not immediately visible does not mean it reflects the entire truth or accuracy of the land.

So too with English orthography.

The English orthographic system is made visible only when we go beneath and beyond the surface; this is where we uncover how our language works. The importance of this became clear when studying the word discovery.

Step into the classroom for a glimpse of how an orthographic investigation unfolds.

As part of the investigation of discovery, selected words are placed in a bag and extracted over a number of days. Students discuss their understanding of each word; we announce the elements with a pause to indicate the morphemic boundaries and place the selected word in or out of the morphological family.

Discovery, dis (pause) cover (pause) y. The base element of this word is c-o-v-er.

Discovery belongs in this morphological family.”

Announcing (by using the letter names) reveals the elements within a word, so it is critical to pause at the boundary of every element.

Notice that recover and recovery lie outside the rectangle indicating that they do not belong to the same morphological family as the other words. It seems surprising that recover and discover are not related. It’s only when we go beneath the surface that we can understand why.

At this stage we have:

  • discussed What is discovery? What is discovery not?
  • assembled some potential relatives
  • speculated about other words such as recover, recovery, re-cover, coverlet, covert
  • possible evidence of a free base element < cover >
  • a shared understanding of the underlying meaning of the gathered relatives
  • a number of questions such as, Is recovery part of this morphological family? What is the denotation of the etymon?

Only now

with this thinking, are we prepared to understand how diachronic etymology impacts the morphology and the phonology. When we read an etymology entry we sift carefully through the diachronic layers until we locate the etymon and its denotation.

We don’t go to an etymological reference to find a morphological base element rather we uncover a word’s evolution, its etymon and denotation.

We note the changes through time and distil this etymological information in a lineage tree diagram.

The etymological research shows us that:

  • cover and recover are not related morphologically nor etymologically. Their etymons and denotations are different: cover derives from Latin operire~opertus ‘close, cover’; recover derives from Latin capere~captum; ‘hold, contain’. When you recover from an illness, you regain, take back your health!
  • cover had many different forms in the Middle English period before cover became the standard spelling. We notice the interrelationship of the < o > and < u > in its Middle English forms.
  • the < c > of cover is the remnant of a former preposition, Latinate com, which was reduced in Late Latin.

With this etymological knowledge, we are able to determine which words are morphologically related.

We can now analyse the relatives to confirm the free base element < cover > ‘close, cover’.

As we confirm the base element and affixes, we jointly construct a matrix to show the portrait of this family. The base element is at the heart of the family and its denotation echoes throughout.

The elements are written on post-it notes and placed within the matrix. It is built slowly overtime with the students and tailored according to their age, needs and experience.

Is the < er > in the final position of < cover > a suffix?

Although < -er > is an agent suffix in the word farmer, explorer, discoverer or an inflectional suffix indicating the comparative form in warmer, smoother, smaller, it is not a suffix in < cover >. The suffix < -er > and the < er > in the base element < cover > is only superficially similar; it’s by delving beneath the surface that the orthographic structure becomes understood.

How do we account for the grapheme < o > in the base element < cover >?

Perhaps you would anticipate the grapheme < u > in the medial position to signal the phoneme /ʌ/? However, it’s the grapheme < o >. The logic and beauty of English orthography allows us to use a variety of graphemes to signal the same phoneme. As we delve into the diachronic journey, we discover that the vowel letters < o > and < u > have a close relationship. Writing the grapheme < o > avoids the visually confusing <*uv > as in cover, love, glove, shovel. Once again going beneath the surface to account for the structure brings clarity, sense and meaning.

The joy of any orthographic investigation is the unexpected delight discovered in the back-stories of the relatives, take coverlet and curfew for example.

A coverlet incorporating various animals, 1851 (V&A), stitched by an unknown hand.

Coverlet, attested in 1382, may be a compound via Old French *covre-lit. How interesting that the element < let > is not a suffix but most likely an Anglicized adoption and adaptation of French lit ‘bed’!

Who would have thought that curfew is an etymological relative of cover! Buried in curfew, attested in 1320, is the ringing of bells to order the covering of the fire, a regulation in Medieval Europe!

When we investigate a word, we venture beyond a single isolated word.

Every investigation is an uncovering of the order, sense and meaning that lies beneath the surface.

By Lyn Anderson & Ann Whiting


A Field Guide to Words: Enlightening, Eclectic, Entertaining

A Field Guide to Words enlightening, eclectic, entertaining. These Field Guides are the ideal companion for teachers and logophiles. 

The writers, two educators, share their passion for orthographic linguistics to celebrate the sense and order of English orthography. They delight in the extraordinary, the hidden stories, the wonders of a word’s past and present. 

With these guides in your hand, you and your students will be inspired to investigate and marvel at the richness of the English language. 

Our latest Field Guide to Words – PLAY highlights:

– the written orthographic statement with teacher dialogue 

– Chancery Script, the foundation for all orthographic study

– an annotated matrix 

– how to read an etymology entry

– compounds

– a key phonological investigation.

A Field Guide to Words goes beyond and beneath the surface to uncover the unity and interrelationship of morphology, etymology and phonology. 

A Field Guide to Words: revised APRIL 2022


Transformation & Metamorphosis 




Australia – Click on this LINK

International – Click on this LINK 

Tomato: ‘star of the earth’

In these virus anxious days we look for the small wonders that are still present in our lives. (What can we say?  We read Pollyanna at an impressionable age and one of us has played the ‘glad game’ in one form or another consistently throughout their lives!) 

Every day we take a photo of something we’ve noticed in our restricted environment that we regard as a small wonder and share the tale behind it before the sun sets. Inevitably in the revealing, we view the wonder orthographically. 


One of my earliest memories is triggered by the smell of tomato plants and this always leads me to my grandparents’ garden. My father’s parents were market gardeners and even in their retirement they grew seedlings in hothouses and kept abundant vegetable and flower gardens. I loved the narrow paths between the beds and loved trailing my grandfather watching him stake tomatoes.

The heirloom tomatoes below are grown by keen gardeners who share the bounty of their garden with locals via an honesty box: parsley, zucchini, beans, eggs … whatever is ready to harvest. 


Tomato is a free base element with a small morphological family: tomato, tomatoes, tomatoey. However, it compounds readily: tomato soup, tomato sauce, tomato blight, tomato chutney – these,  although presenting as two separate words, are open compounds.

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The word tomato, like all words, has an intriguing tale, one of exploration, cultural contact, conquest, trade and exchange.  Tomato was attested in English in 1604 as tomate from earlier Spanish tomate with its roots in Nauhatl – the language of the Aztecs, tomatl.

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Tomatoes arrived in Europe following the conquest of New Spain ( Mexico) between 1519-1521 by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the 16th century the tomato in Europe was a botanical curiosity.  When the tomato reached Italy it was given an Italian name and referred to as pomodoro rather than adopting an approximation of the Aztec name as did Spain, France and England. Sienese Mattioli, renowned physician and investigator of the medicinal properties of plants, noted in 1595 that “a new species of eggplant had been brought to Italy in our time” describing its blood red or golden flesh when mature noting these fruits are called pomi d’oro denoting golden fruits in vernacular Italian (Gentilcore, D. Pomodoro!). This was a generic name for many soft fruits including figs. 

Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici, by Bonzino, 1545. Painted  just 3 years before the first recorded sighting of tomatoes in Italy. This sighting occurred when de Medici was presented with a basket of the fruit from his estate near Florence on Oct 31, 1548. His steward writing to the Medici private secretary noted the safe arrival of the produce: ‘And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.’ Tomatoes, as in this encounter, were for many years objects of wonder rather than consumption.

It took three centuries for the tomato to shake off the suspicious doubts and anxieties – it was after all a member of the deadly nightshade family. When the tomato arrived in England it was grown as an ornamental species and consumed by only a brave few. An encyclopedia of 1753 reflects the underlying doubts and prejudices shown towards the tomato’s foreignness:  “a fruit eaten either stewed or raw by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families of England.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Tomato and calligraphy
Matagon Lilly and Tomato by Joris Hoefnagel (illuminator) and Georg Bocskay (scribe): script (1561-1562) , illumination (1591-1596). This is one of the earliest paintings of the tomato in Europe.

 The spelling of tomato took some time to settle:

tommato, tormato, termarter, termater, termatter, tomarto, tomater, tomayto, tamayda, tamayta, termagter, termayter, tomaty even  tomatum (OED)

Eliza Acton, English food writer and poet (1799 –1859), referred to it as tomata in 1845 but by 1861 Mrs Beeton was writing it as tomato. It was around 1900 that the name tomato became the norm.( Ayto, J. Diner’s Dictionary)

Tomato despite its frequent appearance in our meals, still has an exotic aura about it with its final unitary grapheme <o> . Tomato keeps company with other exotics like: armadillo (1577), flamingo 1589, poncho 1717, garbanzo 1759, pampero (1771) the chilling wind blowing from the Andes across the pampas toward the Atlantic, fiasco 1855, finnesko (1890) a boot made from birch tanned reindeer hide with hair left on the outside, gelato (1932), macchiato (1989,) and galactico (2003) a celebrated footballer(soccer), often bought by a team for a very large fee. 

Yet, unlike the examples above, tomato is not quite a loan word. A ‘loan word’ word is one adopted into English from another language with little or no adjustment to its spelling and one that does not conform to the English spelling patterns and conventions. However tomato has changed; that final <l> in Nahautal is shed during its Spanish sojourn replaced by an <e> and then in English that final <e> was eventually replaced by a final <o>. 

The OED suggests that the final <o> of tomato occurred partly because of uncertainty about the quality of unstressed final vowels in Romance loanwords, and partly because of its association with potato, attested earlier in English in 1565. Tomatoes and potatoes, both arrivals from the New World, were regarded with both wonder and suspicion and the final <o reinforces this exotic aura as native English polysyllables do not have a final unitary grapheme <o>.  However, many of these words have their origins in Spanish or Italian with the suffix <-o > indicating that it is the singular masculine noun form.  This is not the case for either tomato or potato.

Potato and tomato are frequent in use and have assimilated sufficiently into English to conform to its suffixing conventions. Polysyllabic words with a final <o> that have become frequent in the host language, will take the long form of the plural, the suffix <-es>. When words are common and entrenched, they will conform to English orthographic conventions. Their status as loan words diminishes.

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These polysyllabic words while familiar still maintain their ‘loan status’ . As ‘loans’ they take the short form of the plural suffix <-s> rather than the long form <-es> typical of nativised words conforming to English conventions.

The British pronunciation ⁄ təˈmɑːtəʊ ⁄ with long  ⁄ɑː ⁄ is typical of foreign loanwords adopted into English after the Great Vowel Shift. It reflects the ‘substitution of the closest English equivalents for the vowels in the donor language’ (OED). On the other hand the most common U.S. pronunciation  ⁄ təˈmeɪdoʊ ⁄ is comparable  pre Great Vowel shift ‘loanwords’  where the Middle English long a was diphthongized’ (OED) 

The orthography of a word is so much more than surface accuracy. In this musing on tomato we’ve seen that ‘English, perhaps more than any other language, is an insatiable borrower’ (Crystal); it’s an accommodating host. In tomato lies the past and present: tales of cultural exchange, exploration and trade, suspicion of the new, and gradual  acceptance. Our meals would be so much the blander without its crimson juicy presence.

 Pablo Neruda too appreciated the ordinary and in it saw the extraordinary. It seems apt to finish with the final lines of his Ode to Tomatoes from Odas elementales (1954)

‘and on

the table, at the midpoint

of summer,

the tomato,

star of earth,


and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance

no pit

no husk

no leaves or thorns

the tomato offers

 its gift

of fiery colour

and cool completeness.’

 Pablo Neruda

A Field Guide to Words

Ann & Lyn are thrilled to announce their newest publications, ‘A Field Guide to Words’.

Each booklet in the series, ‘A Field Guide to Words’, focuses on one key word to unfold significant orthographic principles and conventions.

Each booklet takes you sequentially through an orthographic inquiry in the classroom.


In the tradition of the trusty field guide, our ‘Field Guide to Words booklets highlight relevant information in small notes, intriguing facts and plant seeds for further inquiry and study.

The first set is now available for purchase ($25 at workshops, or $32 incl. postage, packaging & handling within Australia) and includes:
A Field Guide to Words: Cycles
A Field Guide to Words: Transformation & Metamorphosis
A Field Guide to Words: Adaptation

To purchase within Australia or Internationally please click on this LINK : ORDER FORM 

FG 1
The first set of a A  Field Guide to Words

‘Field Guide n. a book for the identification of animals, birds, flower, or other things in their natural environment; (also in extended use a book ( often with many illustrations) used for the identification of non- natural objects; an explanatory or practical text on a particular topic‘ (OED).

We hope  Field Guide to Words becomes a companion on the quest for understanding the nature of words. We hope the illustrations, diagrams and brief text, highlighting relevant orthographic features and key teaching strategies, will ignite orthographic inquiry in the classroom. We hope through using the guides, you too will be “caught in the spell of words”.

Following the Footprints – word investigation at the Port Arthur Heritage Site

Join us for a three day spell on the Tasman Peninsula, January 15th – 17th, 2020, at the world renowned Port Arthur Heritage Site, to uncover the real structure of English orthography. Combine a unique holiday, immersed in history, with the investigative study of words.

port arthur
View of the Port Arthur Heritage Site from the Junior Medical Officer’s House

Investigation, a noun, is a complex word with a free base element < vestige >.

A matrix  is a morphological portrait of a word family. The base element is the ‘heart’ of the morphological family revealing the elements of the relatives.

Investigation, attested early in the fifteenth century, entered English via Old French investigacion, derived from a Latin root vestigare “to track, trace,” from vestigium “a footprint, a track”

Learn how to trace and interpret the etymological information to locate the root and journey of a word  into English.

Walk in the footprints of those who endured the harshness of Van Dieman’s Land in the  19th century. Track the orthographic footprints of words through time to reveal the truths of the English Language.


We will use rich historical texts, stories and the landscape as an avenue for developing a deep understanding of English orthography. Beginning with the poignant story of the Rajah quilt , we select significant words to investigate the interrelatedness and unity of the three components of orthography: morphology, etymology and phonology. By shining a light on a word’s orthography we unravel the sense and meaning of written text and inspire an ongoing joy and curiosity for learning.

Rajah quilt, 1841
The Rajah Quilt, worked by the convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to van Dieman’s Land 1841, National Gallery of Australia.

Throughout this orthographic study we will model a carefully planned classroom inquiry where the learners experience all aspects of orthography embedded in meaningful and purposeful learning, impacting what it is to be literate.


Orthographic investigation reflects more than the accurate, surface spelling of a word. The unity of the three components, morphology, etymology, phonology, takes us beyond the surface to understand how words are constructed. As with historical objects, words too are artifacts shining a light on humanity and moments in time. They help us to reflect on the present. Join us as we consider the past and present through the study of words in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

Please contact Lyn & Ann for further information, cost & registration:;

The Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania


Transforming Understanding


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We love Bob Graham’s Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten. We have used this classic story in our classrooms from when it was first published in 1992. The names of the two main characters Rose Summer and Mr Wintergarten reflect the conflict – Rose, all flowers and sunlight, Mr Wintergarten, cold, dusty and withered.

“He’s got a dog like a wolf”, said Naomi .

“And a saltwater crocodile”.

They say he rides on his crocodile at night,” said Emily.

“And GETS YA!” Arthur shrieked.

Rose1 Rosie2

When Rose’s ball lands in the overgrown, bristly garden, the neighbourhood children warn her against approaching the grim Mr Wintergarten who, they say, eats children.

Yet warm fairy cakes, a bunch of flowers and friendliness work a transformation and friendship grows. 

What word best captures the heart of this story?

one word
Using a strategy of summing up the essence of a text in one word, we share responses in a ‘wrap around’ the room adding our own suggestions. All of these words would make for rich orthographic inquiries but we intentionally select transformation for this group at this stage of their learning.

We begin with the meaning. The learning community shares their current understanding of transformation.  The students’ understanding of transformation is revisited with each learning experience to build on, refine and develop throughout the unit of inquiry.


isb garden3

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Modelled writing is a powerful strategy to draw students’ attention to orthographic structures. In this message we write in front of the children and simultaneously announce the elements of each word in the statement. Here we intentionally embed the word transformed and its relatives (forming, transformation, information) in our daily message. This strategy is used extensively from the very youngest to the oldest of students.

Working Morphologically

Identifying the morphological family

We hypothesize which words belong to the morphological family and place the words in or out of the word-web. With each new word revealed we first discuss our initial understanding of the meaning.  If this is a group of learners new to orthographic inquiry, we would apply a concept attainment strategy. We explicitly state either: “This is in the morphological family.” or “This is not in the morphological family.” This allows each student time to think about the reasons for each placement. This is particularly useful to guide learners to think beyond the surface of the word.

word bag
Here is a selection of words to consider whether they belong to the same morphological family as transformation. Notice we have included some provocations – they may have a superficial resemblance but are not morphologically related.

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We form a word web to show the growing collection of the morphological family and begin to hypothesize the shared base element.

As each word is revealed, we announce, not pronounce, the elements:

in (pause) f-or-m (pause) at replace the final, non – syllabic e, (pause) ion.

We have now introduced a potential ‘learning seed’ regarding a key suffixing principle: replacing the single, final, non- syllabic ‹e› with a vocalic suffix. We will explicitly investigate this suffixing principle at a later stage.

Once we have gathered potential relatives we pause to reflect and discuss the common base element and underlying meaning that all the members of the morphological family will share. We include our hypothesized base element in the middle of the word web.

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The word web with the hypothesized free base element.

Analysis – loosening the elements

We return to the selection of words gathered on the word-web with the hypothesized free base element ‹ form ›. We analyze the complex word transformation.

Analysis occurs when a word is loosened into its elements. We justify each element by citing other words where this element occurs.

Synthesis – placing the elements together 

After we have justified the elements we synthesize with the word sum to verify our hypothesized analysis.

The rewrite arrow instigates the synthesis. As we announce the elements, we indicate the morphemic boundaries by pausing with the plus symbol. We announce the rewrite arrow “is rewritten as” and indicate any suffixing changes by starting from the outer boundary.

We place the elements we have justified in our draft matrix. 

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As the teacher, we construct the matrix and the students simultaneously synthesize by announcing and writing the elements in a word sum.  With young students this is all we do on the first day.

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During our next encounter with the matrix we add the prefix ‹ trans- › and adjust the elements if necessary. Again we write the elements in the orthographic algorithm, synthesize and announce simultaneously.

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The matrix develops overtime as students uncover and analyze the relatives.

A matrix is a morphological portrait’ of the family. The base element, free or bound, is the main meaning-carrying element present in every word – its morphological heart. 

Often the students write and announce the word sum on small white boards with us or in their journals as the matrix grows. The simultaneous action of writing and announcing ensures the internalization of all the elements. Notice how often the base element ‹ form › is written and announced each time the student writes and resolves a new word sum.

We continue to explore the differences between each word that shares the free base element ‹ form ›. We discover and build lists of attested affixes – prefixes and suffixes. The students add these affixes to their matrix to construct more related words.

During this morphological investigation, after hypothesizing the relatives, the shared base element and its underlying meaning, we are ready to turn to etymology to uncover the root and its denotation.

Working  Etymologically

Every word has an etymological story which impacts the morphological structure and the choice of graphemes.

We read Etymology Online, the OED and other etymological sources to follow the journey of a word through the layers of time to uncover the root and it’s denotation. This denotation will echo throughout all relatives of the morphological family. Constructing a tree diagram helps us to navigate the etymological information to notice the ‘signposts’ of a word’s journey into present day English.

Transformation can be traced back to the Latin noun forma ‘to form, shape, fashion, build’. However, it’s here that the trail becomes vague with some etymologists, notably Ernest Klein, suggesting that Latin forma was derived from Greek morphe ‘form, beauty, outward appearance’. The Greek root morphe is the source of the name of the Greek ‘god of dreams’, Morpheus. It is also the source of morphology and metamorphosis (Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary). Ayto suggests this link between the roots morphe to forma is possible through the process of metathesis which occurs with the transposition of the   ⁄  f  ⁄ and  ⁄ m ⁄  in morphe.

However, the OED offers another possibility suggesting that Latin forma is derived from Latin ferire ‘to strike’, with the idea that a form or shape is created by beating! (OED)

Although we are working etymologically, we plant important phonological ‘learning seeds’ . This fascinating etymological information informs the phonological investigation of the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄  represented by the single letter grapheme ‹ f › in form and the digraph ‹ ph › in morph.

With this etymological information, we return to the morphological component to confirm the underlying meaning of all the relatives we have assembled in the word-web. We continue to develop the matrix and web, adding any new affixes to our morphological display. This takes time as we reflect, refine, notice, practise and apply orthographic principles and conventions. As our learning unfolds, the students’ orthographic understanding deepens and their questions become more insightful and precise as they embed the orthographic terminology.  The students increasingly go beyond the surface to uncover the deep structure of words.

Note the empty arrows inviting students to continue the quest of uncovering the relatives. What a rich and copious morphological family!

Older students have assembled this matrix overtime.

Working with Orthographic Phonology

While we now conduct an explicit phonological investigation of the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄ , morphology is ever present. The phonology of a word can only be realised and understood within the morphological and etymological constraints. Our phonological investigation is framed within the free base elements ‹form › and ‹ morph ›.

form2                      morph

We place words familiar to the students, containing the single letter grapheme ‹ f ›, digraph ‹ ph › and trigraph ‹ ugh › in the word bag.

phoneme chart1.PNG
Notice the third arrow  inviting the students to uncover another grapheme that can represent the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄ .

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A group of free base elements containing graphemes representing the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄ .

Form phonological sort
For more experienced learners the words in this group are complex, adding another layer to the task. Students must first identify the base element. Next they indicate where in the base element the grapheme representing   ⁄  f  ⁄  occurs.

We select words where the graphemes are in different positions – initially, medially and finally. As with every orthographic quest, we begin with meaning to ensure all understand the words we are to investigate phonologically.

The children trade words selected from the word bag to communicate their understanding. Through this collaborative task the students encounter many words to develop their personal lexicon.

Our next encounter with this bank of words focuses on the positional circumstances of the graphemes. Students select from the word bag and identify the position of the grapheme that represents the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄ .

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Unfolding phonological understanding

This concept attainment strategy allows students to think and watch silently as we place the words initially, medially or finally on the phonological chart. We begin with a few words and the chart develops over a number of days.

We collaboratively identify the 3 graphemes that can represent the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄ .

We have now established the positional circumstances (initial, medial or final) of each grapheme. We have planted a ‘learning seed’ as to why the single letter grapheme ‹ f › doubles – an investigation for another time.




Students learn to track the phonemes, in sequence, with key words containing the three different graphemes. We draw attention to the fact that  ⁄  f  ⁄  is a voiceless, fricative consonant where the lower lip and upper teeth are involved in its articulation (a labio-dental, voiceless, fricative).




The phonology of the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄  provides the relevant learning opportunities for all age groups to establish  important orthographic principles:

  • most phonemes can be represented by more than one grapheme
  • most graphemes can represent different phonemes
  • morphology governs phonology (the first priority is to identify the base in order to determine the positional circumstances of the grapheme)
  • etymology impacts the choice of graphemes (note: ‹ ph › is reliably Greek; ‹ ugh › is reliably Germanic).

f chart
We regularly revisit the graphemes representing the phoneme  ⁄  f  ⁄  to further the students’ phonological knowledge of grapheme choices.

We note that ‹ ugh › as in dough, though, through does not represent a phoneme, rather it is an etymological marker indicating its Germanic origins.

Completing the circle of inquiry

This orthographic learning occurs everyday and incrementally builds the understanding of how our language works. We note students’ use of orthographic terminology. We note their developing knowledge of the orthographic principles and conventions and how they apply this to their reading and writing. They begin to see text through an orthographic lens.

form morphological display
Although ‹ une › was once a free base element denoting ‘unity’, it has faded from regular use and today is now found only in the company of other bases or affixes. We have analysed it as a bound base element. The free base element ‹ plat › refers to ‘a small area of land, a small bridge, a widened area near the shaft in a mine, or flat object or surface’. It’s etymology and etymological relatives are  fascinating.

As we work through the orthographic investigation we regularly refine our understanding of transformation. We note the subtle differences between the synonyms of transformation and metamorphosis and read a variety of texts. Our orthographic understanding has indeed transformed!

Text complements

We complement our word investigation of transformation with some of the following fairy stories and myths where transformation is a common motif.

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Anthony Minghella retells various fairy stories in rich, poetic language that begs to be read aloud. We remember the D’Aulaire Greek myths from our childhood. This classic collection retold and illustrated by a husband and wife team is an essential book for every child.

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Summer Birds, The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engles and illustrated Julie Pashkis.  Maria Sibylla Merian by Sarah B. Pomeroy and Jeyaraney Kathiritham offer an insight into the life and times of a remarkable artist, naturalist and entomologist.

The broadening of the words transformation and metamorphosis to include the biological application of ‘change of form in animal life’ was attested in 1663 and 1665 (OED). This was the exact time that Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) artist, botanist and entomologist was observing, recording and illustrating the life-cycle of caterpillars and insects. These illustrations of metamorphosis challenged the prevailing view of ‘ spontaneous generation’, the notion that insects emerged from mud and decayed matter. Merian’s work was celebrated across Europe yet, in subsequent years her work and worth faded from public memory. Her work was re-published late in the twentieth century and again in December 2016 with “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’. We rejoice in Merian’s transformation from a century of obscurity into the light of public appreciation once again.

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Illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian. Left: Plate 8 of Caterpillars, first volume. Depicting a Taraxacum, with the Calliteara pudibunda moth. Right: fromMetamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Words too are artefacts of a time and culture. They are the essence of thought and communication. When we focus on the orthography of the English language and embed it into the fabric of classroom learning, the students read text deeply and write purposefully. Inquiring into the orthographic structure of English reveals the interrelatedness of the three components – morphology, etymology and phonology. Investigating words impacts what it is to be literate.  

“Words matter. They shape how we relate to one another and the world at large. They frame what matters and why.” M. Popova

Written by Ann Whiting & Lyn Anderson




Of Cycles, Circles and Flight

Cycles, Circles and Flight:  Word investigations based on Jeannie Baker’s ‘Circle ‘

written by Lyn Anderson and Ann Whiting

‘Cycles are everywhere in nature…The life cycles of migratory birds are also driven by the earth’s changing seasons and daylight hours, the latter being a primary cue that impels them to begin their migrations.’ (Pete Mara)


Words are the foundation stones of literature. When we investigate words and their structure, we create a cycle of inquiry, a flow through hypothesizing, researching, circling back to the hypothesis, then revisiting the text. This process forms a cycle of learning and understanding that takes us deeper into both texts and words. It can be equally applied to the youngest of learners and older students, it can occur in a day, over weeks, over a month and is part of a general cycle over a year.

Books and words go together like hand and glove. Embedding word inquiry into our learning environments, entwining books and words, brings an understanding of the sense and order inherent in English orthography and adds a depth to the themes and concepts uncovered. Our quest for understanding takes us full circle.


One  book that has caught our attention recently is Jeannie Baker’s Circle (2016). The initial page shows a young boy, paralyzed, lying on his bed with his research on the bar-tailed godwit. He dreams of being elsewhere and wishes he could soar with them. Jeannie Baker’s stunning, collaged illustrations reveal the migratory journey of these remarkable birds as they fly full circle … back to ‘a place where mud and sand become sea’.

Screenshot 2017-11-11 12.14.08

When working with words we often ask students to capture the essence of the text:

What single word best captures the heart of this story?

We share our word, one person at a time in a ‘whip around’ the room. The vocal sharing conveys an almost poetic sense of the heart of the text.

From these words we select words that are central to the text: cycle, circle and migration. These words provide an opportunity to explore key conventions and principles of English, and to deepen our understanding of themes and issues in the text.


Recently Lyn’s reflections on the gracious death and the beautiful birth of close family members, astonishingly falling on the same day, evoked some poignant teaching memories of guiding young children with their study and ultimate discoveries of the ‘cycles of life’.

The cycles of life, the circles of life breathing in every corner of our living world.

Whether it be the study of seasonal changes through the lifeline of trees, an arbour of oaks or chestnuts that swathe us with their crisp fallen leaves and fascinating seeds or the evergreen pine that doesn’t ever seem to change;

or the close scrutiny of the jelly- like membranes of an egg with the excitement of chicks hatching in our  organic garden;

or a quest for understanding,“Where does the rain come from?”;


or the sensations of caressing the soft greens and yellows of the mountain meadows;

or the discoveries of the strong, remarkable  plants of the hot humid tropics;

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or the joy of revealing who we are…the beginning!

All momentous signs of the ‘cycles of life’.

And so we embark on an orthographic journey, concurrently with our deep study of ‘there are many cycles that affect life on earth’.

We really like the word cycles and select this word to study deeply; to investigate its orthography through the three domains of morphology, etymology and phonology.


What is cycle? What is cycle not?

These questions are pondered and deliberated on consistently throughout the study, guiding our quest for understanding.

We revisit the questions often with our students, listening carefully how they communicate and articulate their understanding through the learning experiences that inspire and provoke.

A cycle is not linear, straight or fixed. A cycle is not irregular but may have irregularities as our current weather patterns  reveal.

A cycle is circular, constant and infinite. We keep returning to the beginning but is there a beginning point?

‘Cycles are everywhere in nature. They can occur over the length of a day, a season, a year, or longer.’ (Pete Mara)

“A bicycle, that goes round and round…,” exclaims a 4 year old. This leads to an enthusiastic conversation amongst the children as we determine which of the bike’s components goes round and round.

What parts cycle?

Everyone has something to say because bicycles are part of our world.

We plant conceptual ‘learning seeds’ as the children closely inspect the various mechanical parts of the bike. Through close observation the children sketch the bicycle with a range of art materials.

We scribe the children’s thoughts and plant important orthographic ‘learning seeds’ as we announce aloud the orthographic structures of bicycle and bike.

<bi + c-y-c-l- final non syllabic <e>>     <b-i-k- final non syllabic <e>>

We talk about our collection of recycled materials to design, create and construct.

recycled (2)

We announce aloud the orthographic structure of <re+cycle +ed> as we scribe the children’s thinking. We specifically announce “replace the final non syllabic <e> with the vocalic suffix <-ed>.”

We ask the children to think about the meaning relationship between <recycled> and < cycles>.

Morphological Relatives


We begin to discover words that belong in the same family.  As we extract words from the word bag the students hypothesize which words may be or may not be in a family. We announce aloud the structure of each word as it is revealed and discussed.

<cycle+s>, <tri+cycle>, <cycle+ing>


The children notice that the words in the bag all share a common base element. We hypothesize <cycle>.


The children illustrate the words collaboratively and our word-web begins to grow, as does the children’s understanding, each time we encounter it.

Later we revisit these words to provide evidence that they do belong in the same family.


The Etymological Story

Stories are made of words and every word has a story.

Cycle, as a noun, was attested in the late 14c. It is derived from Greek kyklos, ‘any circular body, circular motion, cycle of events’, indirectly via Late Latin cyclus, ultimately able to be traced back 5,500 years to a Proto Indo European root *kwel-(1) “to revolve, move, round”.


This ancient root has produced, amongst a myriad of other interesting connections, distant etymological relatives such as collar, colony, pulley and wheel.

Cycle, as a verb, was attested in 1842 carrying a meaning of ‘revolving in cycles’.

In 1883 specifically referring to riding a bicycle. (Etymology Dictionary)  

Pedestrian Hobbyhorse, 1819.
Pedestrian Hobbyhorse, 1891

We use images to  share the etymological journey of with the children. We want them mostly to understand that <cycle> derives indirectly from Greek kyklos.

We ask:“What do you notice?”

The children ask about the spelling of <k> in the Greek word. We show how the word is spelled in Greek κύκλος. We talk about how a medial <k> in a modern day English base element is a reliable sign that the word has derived from Greek.

On another day we share the story of Cyclops, literally  ‘round eyed’. The children have discovered the story in the library and of course they wish to know more.

Redon, Odilon (1840-1916) The Cyclops 1898-1990

How is it Built?

We return to the  selection of words we have hypothesized sharing the free base element <cycle>. We model the assembly of the word sum, announcing aloud the written elements, pausing at the morphemic boundaries and announcing any suffixing changes. We find evidence of the elements we have constructed.

c-y-c-l-final non syllabic <e>… ing … is rewritten as c-y-c-l-replace the<e> … ing, cycling

The simultaneous actions of writing and announcing aloud ensures the internalization of all the elements.


As we construct the matrix the children assemble the word sum on small white boards or in their word inquiry journals.


We write the word sum for each complex word before we add further elements to the matrix. We continually refer to the word-web to select words to place on the matrix.

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We do this over a period of time, throughout the day, during the week, focusing on one or two word sums at a time. The children take their matrix home to share with their family. We continue to explore the subtle differences between each word that share the free base element <cycle>.

Some of the children choose to add to their matrix and build further words.

Simultaneously we continue our deep study of cycles in nature and we decide to focus on the cycle of day and night to appreciate and realise the motion of the earth orbiting the sun.


With our knowledge of the morphology and etymology well embedded, we embark on a study of the phonology of <c>, to investigate the significant graphemes and phonemes that bring further sense and meaning.

We know that morphology and etymology drive phonology and therefore we can only investigate a word’s phonology within the domains of morphology and etymology.

The phonology of the free base element:

4 graphemes  <c> <y> <c> <l>

the single, final, non syllabic <e>

4 phonemes /s/ //  /k/ /l/

As we hoped, the children are questioning and discussing the different functions of the single letter grapheme in the initial and medial positions of <cycle>.

It is necessary for the children to understand:

  • the same grapheme can and will represent different phonemes and
  • the same phoneme can be represented by different graphemes.

The orthography of <c> provides the relevant learning opportunity to deepen these critical phonological principles. We study and analyse the single letter grapheme <c> which can represent two different phonemes /s/ and /k/.

The linguistic terminology: grapheme, phoneme, IPA, angle brackets and slash brackets naturally occur in our everyday discourse.

As with all our quests, we need to ensure the learning community understands the meaning of the words we will use to analyse phonologically.

The children take part in the trading game to communicate the meaning of their word. The children trade words and move to another partner.

Through this collaborative task the children encounter many words, building and deepening their personal lexicon. We deliberately partner ourselves with children who need support to understand their initial word. After this the children support each other.


The children collaboratively illustrate the words and return the words to the word bag.

During the next encounter the children select a word from the word bag and identify the position of the grapheme in their word. We discuss the circumstances of this grapheme: initial, medial or final?


We guide the children through a concept attainment quest. The children place their word on the Venn diagram as directed by us. Their role is to think about our thinking.

“Why did I ask you to place your word in the red circle or the blue circle or the overlapping part?”

“How interesting that cycle and circle are placed in the overlap!”

We revisit the phonological analysis over a number of days so the children have time to ponder on the placement of the words.

When we reconvene as a group the children discuss and share their hypotheses.   

We decide as a learning community that the single letter grapheme is representing either /s/ or /k/ or both in the case of circle and cycle.

During the next weeks we revisit the phonology of <c> so that the children develop their understanding of grapheme choices. We encourage the children to add other words to the growing collection as they encounter them in books or when writing.

We revisit the vowel letters and learn how to script the pathways of each letter. The children especially enjoy scripting the beautiful ligature of the vowel letter < y>.
We plant further phonological ‘learning seeds’ so the children will encounter other phonemes represented by the single letter grapheme; or other graphemes that represent the phoneme /k/.

c grapheme


We are left with many questions  as we continue our orthographic study.

Throughout our quest we read and revisit Jeannie Baker’s stunning literary text Circle.

“Tiny godwits follow ancient, invisible pathways in a an infinity of sky. ‘Circle’ captures the sheer wonder of this migratory journey…”

We wonder why the author has chosen the title Circle.

We feel and see the cyclic nature of the bar-tailed godwit’s annual journey in the text.

“Why not cycle?”

We wonder about cycle and circle.

“Are they etymologically related?”

We would like them to be related, but we know we need to provide evidence…

spelling word families 006

This study is an ebb and flow, a cycle, it’s cyclical, we are continually returning to our quest to deepen our learning and those of our students.

Bar tailed godwits, limosa lapponica, Roebuck Bay, W.A.


When working with students or teachers, before leaping to resources, we first try to get our own sense of the word.

What is migration? What is migration not?  

Often in determining what something is not, our understanding of what that ‘something’ is will deepen.

Migration is not staying still, staying put. Migration is not a recent phenomena, nor applicable to humans only.

Migration is a movement. It involves a journey, a change. Migration is innate in some species and becomes part of an annual pattern involving a change of location, predictable and seasonal. Migration is cyclical.

‘They follow an ancient invisible pathway for six nights and six days, until they know they need to stop’ (Baker).

The Morphological Family


Asking students to decide which words may be or may not be in a family is one way to identify a common base element.


Examining this set of words, developing a hypothesis with word sums to confirm a base element, leads to lively discussion. Rejecting words like fumigate, migraine and mighty is critical. On the surface they share a letter string <mig> but this carries no meaning; it is not a base element in any of the words. These words do not share a common sense found beneath migrant, emigrate, immigrant and transmigratory.

If we analyze immigrant as <im +migr+ant>, then we need to justify our hypothesis.

What other words can confirm the presence of these elements?

“What other words share the prefix <im-> ?”

“Import, imprecise, immature.

“What other words confirm the presence of <-ant> as a suffix?”

“Important: <im+port+ant>, hydrant: <hydr+ant>, pleasant: <please+ant>.”


At this stage we draw on our collective knowledge – we do not rush to resources or “google” it. Rather we think and confirm with word sums to develop our hypothesis that <migr> is the common bound base element.

Migration is built of three elements: the bound base element <migr> and the suffixes   <-ate> and <-ion> so <migr+ate+ion >.

We notice that the vowel suffix <-ion> removes a final, non-syllabic <e>. This is a key suffixing convention that occurs in many words and should be an explicit inquiry. We maintain a growing collection of vowel and consonant suffixes and any new discoveries are placed carefully.

Suffixes 2

It is only the vowel suffix that has the potential to either double a final consonant letter or replace the final non-syllabic <e>.

Screenshot 2017-11-03 18.27.25

Gathering the relatives in a word-web allows us to find members of the family and recognize the underlying meaning connection.

Word-webs that are assembled grow slowly over a week or they can be constructed in a single class session. They can be sent home and discussed with the family and new discoveries that share the base <migr> can be added. We have seen large word-webs posted in school corridors or the library where anyone with a suggestion of an additional related word can contribute.”


A matrix is a powerful morphological portrait of the family. We note the base element is bolded. It is the main meaning carrying element present in every word – its morphological heart. The denotation of the base element beats beneath every word in the family. We are now ready to explore subtle nuances.

What is the difference between emigrate and immigrate?

What is the difference between immigration and immigrant?

The words are analyzed in word sums – the linguistic representation of the elements. We write the word sum enclosed in angle brackets and instigate the synthesis of the elements with the rewrite arrow, announcing any suffixing changes.

migr +wordsums

We announce the elements, pausing at the morpheme boundary and announce any changes.

“migr … ate … ion is rewritten as migr … ate replace the <e> …ion.”

This helps consolidate conventions and internalizes the elements through the kinesthetics of writing and speaking. Noticing the final suffix often leads to a discussion of the way a word can be used in a sentence.

“Is migration nominal, verbal, adjectival, adverbial? How do you know?

Etymological Relatives

Stories are made of words and every word has a story.

Migration, attested in 1610, referred only to people. In the 1640s it broadened to include animals. It is derived from Latin migrare “to move from one place to another,” ultimately traced back 5,500 years to a Proto Indo European root *mei-(1)  “to change, go, move”.

The knowledge of birds migrating to Asia was recognized in the Middle Ages, but faded later. Even the remarkable scholar Dr Johnson, while admitting to Boswell in 1768 that woodcocks migrate, claimed :

Swallows do certainly sleep all winter. They conglobulate together by flying round and round and then, all in a heap, throwing themselves under water.”

This was more plausible than the fanciful assertion by the naturalist Morton (1703) who proposed a theory that swallows ‘migrated to the moon’.

As late as 1837 bird migration was not widely understood. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells of the Kendal Mercury reporting

‘… a person having observed several Swallows emerging from Grasmere Lake, in the spring of that year, in the form of ‘bell-shaped bubbles,’ from each of which a Swallow burst forth ….’

Screenshot 2017-11-04 18.46.52

We notice that this ancient root, P.I.E.* mei-(1), has produced distant etymological relatives such as mutation, moult and mews. The underlying sense of ‘change’ is apparent in mutation and moult but less so in mew until you dig beneath the surface.  

Mew entered English in 1300 from Old French mue and the verb muer to molt. A mew was the cage or place for falcons to moult. Today the rather expensive mews properties in London have disguised their feathery, raptor origins in trendiness and high prices.

We of course wonder about the etymology of Baker’s feathery protagonists, the godwits.

Godwit engraving by Lorenzi and female engraver Violante Vanni from Vol. 4 from Saverio Mannetti (1723-85) 5 volume treatise on birds of 1776. (See more here)

Our research takes us to the OED where we find that godwit was attested in 1416-17 and was ‘probably originally imitative of the bird’s call’ (OED). An alternative name for the godwit was yarwhelp used from 1577. This name too was:

‘imitative of the goat-like cry of the godwit’.

Alarmingly, the hapless godwit was frequently eaten:

‘Godwyts..accounted the daintiest dish in England; and, I think, for the bigness, of the biggest price.’ (Sir T. Browne in 1682)

Today it’s a not the threat of being eaten that plagues the intrepid godwit but loss of habitat.


Godwit Migration

Our word inquiry and the book Circle spurs us to uncover more about godwit migration.

We discover that:

  • the north-bound godwit migration, is over 10,000 km, accomplished in two stages.
  • the godwits shrink their gizzards and intestines in August so they can fly south on their accrued fat reserves.
  • the godwit completes the southern bound journey from Alaska to New Zealand, a distance of  11,500 km., non-stop in just over eight days.


‘Late one afternoon, when the wind is icy, godwits call to each other. The time is right. Suddenly they leave as one. Following an ancient, invisible pathway high above the clouds, each bird takes a turn to lead the way south.’ (Baker)

The migratory cycle of the godwit told so eloquently in Baker’s Circle is just one species involving many bird migrations that move through global flyways in a rhythm tied with feeding and breeding, with seasons and light. The cycle, once a certainty, is today increasingly precarious.

We stand firmly on the ground awed by the airy accomplishments of godwits whose continued migratory cycle lies in our hands.


And so we circle back to Jeannie Baker’s Circle‘back in the place where mud and sand become sea.’

This text has sparked orthographic inquiry with both older and very young students.

We return to the words cycle and migration with a heightened understanding of the orthography within the domains of morphology, etymology and phonology. These are interrelated and cyclical.

Our selected words are intentionally few and integral to the text.

Understanding these words reveal important orthographic principles and conventions that underlie all words.

“Birds were flying from continent to continent long before we were. They reached the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica, long before we did. They can survive in the hottest of deserts. Some can remain on the wing for years at a time. They can girdle the globe. Now, we have taken over the earth and the sea and the sky, but with skill and care and knowledge, we can ensure that there is still a place on Earth for birds in all their beauty and variety — if we want to… And surely, we should.”
– Sir David Attenborough, The Life of Birds