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The Real Reason Etymology Matters - My Son's 6th Grade Class

So, my son comes home from his second day in 6th grade excited about his reading class. This is great news, as reading has been a struggle for him for so long. He says he likes his new teacher and that they were talking about words, which he likes. He is very good at making connections between words now, so he showed me the page she gave them and said he had a question. His question was, is bass (meaning low) related to the base like in basement? We investigated, and indeed it is. They both come from the Latin word <bassus> meaning short or low.


Then he shows me the paper they were going over in class. Unfortunately, the front is titled, "Let's face it, English is a crazy language", and the back is titled, "Reasons why the English language is so hard to Learn". Argh. Neither of these are true, which he knows, but so annoying that kids are bombarded with these false ideas. So, he shows me the sentence that made him think about <bass> and <base>: A bass was painted on the bass drum. So, then I said, hmmm, let's look at bass. There really is no other way to spell the fish, and the other bass is <ss> because of the Latin, but I was curious about the history of <bass> the fish. Turns out it used to be <baers> in Middle English. Losing the <r> before an <s> is certainly not unheard of (bust/burst, cuss/curse), but I not only knew the best example of this, Doug also has the full explanation of this process under the entry for said example. Have you guessed it? How do the Brits say ass? Arse! There's the <r>. Of course he loved that example, and it turns out that his teacher is an anglophile (she told them that the first day of school), so I told him he should tell her about the missing <r>, and see if she knew of another example. Ha ha!


Next I notice two different sets of words used in the sentences on the paper. The first set are words that are spelled the same because they are noun/verb pairs (refuse, present, etc.) We discussed the difference between them. He was able to hear the difference and even knew it was because of stress. I then pronounced all of the words that had the stress on the second syllable and asked him if they were nouns or verbs. He realized they were all verbs. So, we talked about how often the verbs get the vocal energy at the end. Can be stress, but it can also be voicing (close, use). Not crazy. Not hard.


Lastly, we looked at the other set of words that were like <bass>. The first one we saw was <wound>. The sentences was, "The bandage was wound around the wound." We talked about the verb, and not only decided it couldn't be spelled any other way, but also, there is a pattern: wind/wound, find/found, bind/bound. Made sense. Then we looked at the noun. Why was it spelled <wound> and not <woond>? It was <wund> in Old English. Well, there you go. Why would we use <oo> if there's a <u> in it already? Again, not crazy. Not hard.


THIS is why etymology is not only important to spelling, it's crucial. People are starting to accept that morphology is important, and incuding it in their litracy instruction, but often it is late, inaccurate, or both. And they still refuse to accept the importance of etymololgy. How do you make sense of these words with just phonology and morphonlogy? You can't. Etymology is what drives grapheme choices. And there is nothing about the sturcture of a free base that informs us about the spelling. And it isn't hard or complicated. A 1st grader could certainly understand the conversation we had. But what they couldn't do is have it with someone who isn't educated about how the writing system works.


I have to say, I am quite disappointed with not only our broken education system, but the racket that is literacy intervention, claiming to only use what is backed by the science of reading while ignoring everything linguistics teaches us about the writing system, as well as the grass roots organization that has tried so hard to fight for their children to learn how to read only to now be enacting laws and supporting companies that refuse to look at linguistic truths about spelling.


What we have now are not only half-literate kids in schools, but those who need and receive intervenention plateau when phonics no longer works for their level of text (about 5th grade). I am convinced this is why so many K-2 teachers are screaming that OG-based phonics works. Because they don't see the kids after elemetary school. We do. They don't see them after they "finish" the program (note: most kids don't). We do. They come to us reading below grade level in middle school, and they spell by sounding out. Even in the best case scenario, they rely on pronuncation to read, which is laborious and inefficient, and they have missed out on the relationships between words that is based on their structure and history, not sound!


All I can do is take it day by day, and help those to come to me for help, whether it be students who are struggling, parents who have lost hope, or teachers who just want to help their students. And though we are in the midst of a literacy crisis, I refuse to become disheartened. Instead, I will continue to fight. I have no other choice.



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