Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Model for Morphological Reasoning via Collegial Conversations (Bowers, Mohler, & Reichstein)

Pete Bowers here--one third of the authors of this collegial conversation. This week’s post is a unique one. The text of this post was not written with the intention of becoming a public post, but it was inspired by a previous Vocabulogic post by Dr. Geri Mohler, an education consultant. Sharon Reichstein is a teacher of Grade 5/6 students with learning and/or reading difficulties in Ottawa who attended my very first summer course years ago and just keeps on moving forward! You can see a video clip of Sharon walking me around her amazing classroom a few years ago.

This correspondence was sparked when Sharon read Geri’s post and investigated the materials Geri so generously made available to everyone. Sharon noted an error in the materials and decided to write Geri directly to see what she thought. Sharon copied me and then, as you will see, Geri copied me in her response. I could not resist responding and sharing my opinion. It was Geri who first suggested we consider editing our emails for clarity and then posting our conversation on Vocabulogic.

I want to highlight the open, evidence-based discussion, modeling intellectual curiosity and reflective thought. Our hope is that by sharing this correspondence other Vocabulogic readers will be inspired to treat the identification of errors in their own thinking as opportunities to learn, and that sharing that learning is just an opportunity to push the community of learners knowledge forward. This might serve as a model for classroom discussions as well as collegial conversations.

Geri, Sharon, and I hope you find this discussion productive. Thanks to Susan for providing the venue!

Pete Bowers

Hi Geri,

I was reading Susan's Vocabulogic blog today and I was linked to your wonderful hands on activities. It is wonderful that you are sharing usable resources like this with teachers. I see three errors that I wanted to discuss with you. I have studied Real Spelling with Peter Bowers in Kingston, you may know him. 

1) On page 34, you have an activity that incorrectly highlights the suffix <-tion>, but this is incorrect, because <-tion> is NOT a suffix. More correctly, <-ion> is the suffix and the <-t-> is always part of the base. For example <dict> is a bound base meaning 'to say or speak' and <diction> is the base <dict + ion> and <prediction> is pre + dict + ion. An easier example to look at is the word action. Clearly if you look at the word morphologically you can see it is the free base <act> with an <-ion> suffix. 

2) On page 15, where you give reasons for single silent <e>, there is another reason that is not included. No word likes to look like a plural if it's not, so words that end in <s> usually have a single silent <e> to show it's not plural. “house” for example, the role of the single silent <e> is to make it clear that the word is not more than one “hou.” hou + s which clearly makes no sense. I'm not positive but I believe the reason for the <e> in the word <are> is to make the word longer but Pete would probably be able to explain it better. (I've cc'd him on this email). There is a reason for the <e> in “come” and “some” but again Pete will be able to explain it better. 

3) On page 18, the last reason you show for not changing <y> to <i> is that there is a rule that says two <i's> cannot go side by side in English because in cursive writing they look like a <u>, therefore if it's a suffix beginning with <i> you keep the <y>. 

Hope this helps and makes sense.



Thanks for your thorough proofing of my vocabulary activities. I have provided similar kinds of activities to classrooms to try and I have given the kids $1 for every mistake they find. One time, it was enough for pizza for the entire class! I will admit, that time I purposely left in errors to see if they could find them. Of the three things you mentioned, I have a couple of comments:

1) First, I realize that -ion is considered the suffix but, in the dictionary, -tion is defined as a suffix. It is probably better that -ion be labeled as the suffix because it then takes into account session, crucifixion, etc.

2) The silent e rules I took from the Spalding method of reading instruction. I can see your point about the reasons why we add an "e" to house, etc., but in the Spalding method it only works with the 5 rules I listed. Besides, it doesn't make sense to protect the reader from thinking "hous" might be thought of as more than one "hou" when there is no "hou." I would think that, for kids learning to read, that is more information than they need, although it's probably great fun to relate the story. As for "are," "come," and silent e words like that, I'm sure there are numerous stories for their spellings as well. I still have a lot to learn, but I'm not sure how much kids need or want to know about some of the things that you and I (and Peter?) find fascinating. I try to keep it simple for kids when it's possible.

3) I guess the same goes for the 3rd reason for not changing the y to i. What you say makes sense and provides a reason for not spelling with two i's together.

All that said, you may note that the packet comes in Word as well as pdf, which means that you may change/repair anything you want if you choose to. As for me, I will probably leave it as it is because I no longer teach kids or teachers. But, if I ever decide to do more with these activities, I will change the -tion and replacing the 3rd reason for not changing y to i to your explanation. IF you decide to use the Word version and correct these things, I would love to have that version!

Thanks again for your scrutiny. I'm sure there are other issues as well. For instance, I provide keys to all of the activities, are they correct? I doubt they are 100% accurate. If, by chance, you find other errors, I would really appreciate your letting me know.

If you're interested, I have also created a fun game format to learn/work with the 1000 most frequent words (Fry's). I would be happy to share.


Hello Geri and Sharon,
I've very much enjoyed being included in this discussion.
Geri, I am delighted to see a maker of teacher resources who seeks out being corrected by students and asks for further advice from people they don't know that show an interest.

I understand that some of the conventions that Sharon described are not typically addressed in schools and may seem too complicated. I also understand that often teachers who are interested in those linguistic details are trepidatious about imposing their own interest on students.

But it has been my experience over and over that not only do children find these kind of conventions fascinating to discover, doing so helps them make ever better sense of how their writing system works, and deeper motivation to investigate those kinds of questions.

1) Geri, you write:
“First, I realize that -ion is considered the suffix but, in the dictionary, -tion is defined as a suffix. It is probably better that -ion be labeled as the suffix because it then takes into account session, crucifixion, etc.”

This statement of yours is excellent in that you show that you realize that it is quite possible that there is a flaw in the dictionary, and then you give evidence supporting why the <-ion> suggestion by Sharon makes more sense because it explains more words. Here you are applying the scientific principle of seeking the deepest structure that accounts for the greatest number of cases. When you look at any examples that dictionaries give for words with a <*-tion> suffix, they never work.

Here's what my Oxford says:  -tion: suffix forming nouns of action, condition, etc., such as completion, relation.  ORIGIN from Latin participial stems ending in -t + -ion .

I love encouraging students to make word sums with these two examples:
complete/ + ion --> completion
relate/ + ion --> relation

That is all that is needed to show that the dictionary must be wrong in this case as there is no such thing as <*comple> or <*rela>.

The interesting thing about this is that students love it, but teachers are often a bit nervous about it. Students, in my experience are much more keen to find examples of authoritative sources being shown to be wrong than are teachers.

To refine our understanding of the world, I like to base my conclusions on a scientific principle than on what one authority or another suggest. And that, I would say is what I would like to help children do. And I must say your eagerness to receive feedback from strangers suggesting errors in your work suggests that you are of a similar opinion.

I will provide just a couple of examples of what can happen when we invite children to join us as scientists investigating the structure and meaning of words with the aid of learning subtle conventions that most people don't know.

2) If you go to this link, you can download a pdf showing a story of a Grade 4/5 class at a school in a very poor neighborhood of my home town. Their teacher in this case has taught the students about the "single, silent <e> as a plural cancelling marker" first with the word <please> vs. <plea>, but he may well have shown that this convention also leads to the <e> at the end of <house> even though we don't know of a word spelled <hou>.

That is in the background knowledge of this group when they do an engaging activity in science on <condensation>. When the student brings up the question about how to make a word sum for this word, the students independently make use of that "silent <e> marker" convention to help them discover the connection between <condensation> and <condense> and thus discover the connection in meaning between two words that were new to them by using a spelling hypothesis based on that information to look in the dictionary.

I know it sounds a bit complicated. The point is, it wasn't complicated for the kids because they had been working on this content for some time with their teacher.

The other example I will share is this video of a Grade 7 student at this link,  explaining his wonderful learning about current events in Social Studies via morphological analysis of the word <dissident>. I think you will find it a fascinating use of linguistic knowledge to deepen and explain understanding of a rich subject area.

I can assure you there are errors in my publications too. Just this week a friend pointed to an error in my book, one I had never seen before. I must correct it before my next print run!


Hi Pete and Sharon, 

I enjoyed this conversation immensely. You know what--we should post this entire dialogue in Vocabulogic. Should we send it to Susan?



  1. I would love the details regarding the 1000 Word game format that Geri created.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone! I think the question that remains on the table is "How do we balance the teaching of reading and writing with the teaching of content?"

    The history behind the spelling of house and trying is certainly interesting (thank you for sharing it with me!), but with the prevailing "knowledge deficit" of which Hirsch, Jr. wrote (2006), we must allow plenty of time for content area instruction.

    In my view, the first bit, about the suffix -ion, offers more productively useful and generative information than the other bits.

    Having said that, wouldn't it be great if all literacy teachers understood all three items discussed above, in case questions arise?


Comments are published after they are reviewed, to ensure they are not SPAM.