Sunday, March 21, 2010

Infer: Make Bricks WITH Straw! (video)

Hirsch (2006) describes a knowledge deficit in rich and poor alike, yet most severe in impoverished conditions. This deficit is troubling because knowledge facilitates comprehension and cognitive processing (Willingham, 2006). The good news? With informational reading materials educators can promote content knowledge and vocabulary simultaneously (earlier post). 

For example, consider the second-grade book pictured left, part of the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading curriculum discussed in a prior post. I display a primary text because educational psychologists like Neitzel, Alexander, and Johnson (2008) have demonstrated that young children eagerly absorb new content, manifesting burgeoning interest along with a verbal and academic advantage over peers not comparably enriched by engaging content. By exploring interesting yet readable texts, including digital materials, students can further their facility with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. They potentially become both word savvy and world savvy even as they develop interest in a specific topic.  

Topic knowledge is essential to inference and inference is essential to comprehension. Readers are almost always required to draw an inference, connecting what they know with what was written to make sense of what was NOT written. Authors omit information, assuming the reader will "get it" but if we have frail or faulty knowledge of the topic we cannot easily infer. We cannot make bricks without straw! (To fully understand that figurative expression prior knowledge was required.)

In the videoTeaching Content Is Teaching Reading, Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist, illustrates the process of inference. Be sure to note the baseball study and the stats on time not dedicated to subject matter inquiry in primary grades. Credit the source as (video references here.). To further explore the topic, read Willingham's Washington Post blog entry about comprehension strategies. Willingham describes why strategy research is conducted more readily than content knowledge research, thus influencing reading curriculum. 

Morphological note: The word infer contains the prefix in- meaning 'in' plus the Latin root fer meaning 'to bear, to carry.' Thus, to infer is to carry input into one's mental schema and merge it with one's knowledge, perceptions, and experiences, thereby drawing a conclusion. Explore more words with the root fer at this site, included in Vocabulogic's Useful Links (in page footer), labeled Affixes (and some roots).

Happy spring!


  • Hirsch, E.D., Jr. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2006, Spring). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator, 30-37.
  • Neitzel, C., Alexander, J. M., & Johnson, K. E. (2008). Children's early interest-based activities in the home and subsequent information contributions and pursuits in kindergarten. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 782-797. 


  1. The site referred to in Susan’s final paragraph is Michael Quinion’s ‘World Wide Words’, a treasure house of stories about words.

    A Cambridge man, Quinion is an excellent writer whose main site is always a good and stimulating read. But he is not a linguist and his use of terminology can be rather fuzzy-edged and inconsistent.

    Susan has properly indicated that Quinion’s sub-site offering his collection of ‘affixes’ does, in fact, include in this category elements that are not actually affixes but are what are often referred to in the schooling literature as ‘roots’.

    Quinion’s ‘-fer’ (we know that he is presenting it as an affix because he states that he indicates his ‘affixes’ with an attached hyphen) is one of them. Indeed, among the 45 entries for ‘affixes’ with the initial letter ‘f’, only three of them are single morphemes that are indubitably affixes.

    So do heed Susan’s note implying that ‘fer’ is not necessarily to be taken as an affix, but at the same time do enjoy the stimulation and challenge of what Quinion always has to offer.

  2. Thank you, Real Spelling. I appreciate Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site, too.

    Under Useful Links in the Vocabulogic sidebar, I created a separate link to Quinion's Affixes section because I wanted to draw this information to everyone's attention. I felt it might be lost in the wealth of goodies at the main site. The Affixes section might prove quite useful to teachers, even though it adopts an unusual approach to morpheme terminology and classification.

    Across the domains of linguistics, lexicography, and education, I frequently encounter differences or discontinuity in terminology and morpheme classification. This can cause consternation and confusion, but nonetheless, I learn a great deal from various sources across the three domains.

    Indeed, many of the morphemes that are classified as Affixes in World Wide Words are actually roots. The site seems to list some roots as both a prefix and a suffix. For example, see therm(o)-, as a prefix in thermostat and also see -therm as a suffix in ectotherm. The system here appears to be based on WHERE the morpheme is found.

    There is certainly a difference between a root and an affix. Students need to understand the difference.

    At the same time, students might enjoy discussing how a prefix may, in time, become a word (for example, sub and dis have become words).

    Also, at one point in the past, before we classified sub- as a prefix I believe there was a Latin word, a preposition, something very much like our prefix sub- (so, a Latin word became an English prefix, and the English prefix has now, once again, become a word).

    In the Beginning was the Word (Aronoff, 2007).

    I thank Real Spelling for further clarifying and elaborating upon the allusion I made in my post.

    I find the matter of discontinuity across domains to be quite a sticky wicket.

  3. Susan’s point is well made about the roots of many of our suffixes being free prepositions in Latin. As far as Latin grammar is concerned, a formation such as ’sub + scribere’ is a compound of two lexical items.

    Together with the structure {preposition + verb} compounds of various sorts were frequent in Latin. Examples of other types of Latin compounds are ‘magn + animus’ (“great-souled”), ‘res + publica’ (“the public concern, republic”) and ‘pater + familias’ (“head of the household”).

    Most of the compounds that didn’t contain a preposition were formed with the morphological element called the “connecting vowel” that was usually ‘i’. Quinion’s ‘fer’ is actually the stem of the Latin verb ‘fer(re)’ (“carry, bear”) and is productive in Latin with this connecting vowel. Examples are ‘lucifer’ (“light-bearer”) and ‘pestifer’ (“plague-bearing”).

    The connecting vowel letter is also occasionally ‘u’ and rarely ‘e’. Examples are ‘cornucopia’ (“horn of plenty”) and ‘liquefacere’’ (“make liquid”),

    Latin could even have compounds of three or even more elements. One of our favourites is ’suovetaurilla’ (“a sacrifice consisting of a sow, a sheep and a bull”)!

    There are hundreds of such compounds in Latin. That is to be expected. One of the common structural features of the Indo-European Languages, of which Latin, Greek, and English are members, is compounding. If a language is IE, by definition it compounds.

    It is not surprising, then, that the Latin register of the English lexicon is rich in Latin-origin compounds. Here, for your delight and delectation, are just a few.

    agriculture edifice equilateral artificial igniferous municipal homicide omniscient centrifugal aqueduct magniloquent republican glorification malevolent sacrifice benediction satisfactory carnivorous vivisection locomotive sesquipedalian

    Real Spelling

  4. Excellent information. Thank you!

  5. Gina Cooke3/26/2010

    I appreciate the Latin compounds, Real Spelling, and keep a list of my own, including spongiform,
    prestidigitation and nomenclature,
    and several plum examples found in the Catholic Church, like genuflect, Misericordia, and, my high school alma mater, Corvallis.

    Latin compounds in Modern English provide compelling linguistic evidence that not only are morphological terms in education fuzzy -- even among Science-Based Reading educators -- but so are morphological concepts themselves. Several authors have indicated in their writing and pedagogical frameworks that Latin "roots" must affix, and cannot compound. Clearly this is a misapprehension of how English works.

    Lyon (2003, 2009) and Moats (2000, 2004, 2009) have exhorted educators to base their practice on evidence rather than on hunches and beliefs. Let's all heed the clarion call and base our instruction on evidence from the language rather than from our hunches or beliefs about it.


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