ResearchED Washington

One minute I’m touring the White House with Tom Bennett and my Eduhero David Didau. The next, a group of invested teachers along with Kate Walsh, President, National Council of Teacher Quality (yes, that Kate Walsh) are following me into a spare classroom, willing to miss their next session to hear more about how I teach children to read. Suddenly I’m eating dinner at Dave’s Chili House where Barack Obama once visited and enjoyed a juicy half smoke. This was my ResearchED experience and it was amazing. 

From Didau (now I know, it’s pronounced /da͜ɪda͜ʊ/), don’t be so certain! Dylan William reminded us that research has its issues so your shit better be plausible. Well, maybe he didn’t say it just like that. I learned a new word (thanks Eric Kalenze) bullsh – initiatives. It’s what it sounds like, misguided ideal driven approaches to change. I’m gonna keep that one in my back pocket. 

I’m lit up like a bulb and I can’t wait to get back to teaching. It’s what I do. Watch for a blog post either here or with my friends The Learning Scientists where I will lay out the argument I presented at this most credible conference. In the meantime, here’s the image that changed me forever.



Second grader Max is interested in WWII. We were reading together from a book we made for him. And right there on the first page is the word treaty, which he didn’t recognize. 

We talked a bit about the definition of treaty, a new word for Max. It’s a written agreement, generally between two countries, where both sides agree to behave in a certain way. Thanks go to for helping us out with that. 

Treaty is built from a free base element <treat> and <y>, in this case a noun-forming suffix. What’s the connection between a treat and a treaty? A treaty pulls countries together and a treat is something that pulls you in. And how you treat someone has to do with how you handle them. Metaphorically speaking, how you drag or pull them about. 

More relatives in the image above. Yes, they all have something to do with pull. We asked Max to explain why treaty was written with the <ea> grapheme when <ee>, for example, would be just as plausible. He understood! While there are other ways to write /i/, <ea> is the only one that marks treaty’s connection to its relatives and links to the idea of “pull.”

Teaching Max is a treat.


How can I help a student who spells <refrigerator> as <*refridgerator>? This question was posed to me over the weekend and it was a good one.
The orthographic word sum I propose for refrigerator would be <re> “again” + <friger> “cold” + <ate> + <or>. The Latin verb for refrigerate is refrigeratus. To get to the base in English, I removed the genitive sufffix <us> and the stem suffix <at>. I don’t believe there is anything else I can remove, thus <friger> or  perhaps, <friger(e)>. It’s not a productive base in English: refrigerate (a back formation), refrigerated, refrigerating, refrigeration. And the brand name Frigidaire. I love throwing in brand names. And <fridge>.

Fridge is a clip or shortening of refrigerator. So refrigerator wasn’t built off of <fridge>, it was essentially the other way around. It wasn’t only shortened, but also altered. The <dg> (<dge>) spelling originated in the days of early Old English when the /g/ phoneme became less common and the /dʒ/ phoneme became more common, especially at the ends of words. These “new” words were a challenge for the scribes who were tasked with figuring out how to write English using a Latin alphabet. What to do with these words that were once pronounced with final /g/ but now were pronounced with final /dʒ/? Many things were tried (<j> wasn’t invented yet), but the spelling that caught on was <dg>, a grapheme that marked that historically there was a /g/. 

But fridge? Fridge doesn’t have that long of a history, obviously. But in 1926, when it came to spelling the clip for refrigerator the OE <dge> spelling found another use. The moral of the story? Don’t use fridge to help you spell refrigerator. And words are fun. 

There is more fun to be had in related words include French frisson and (yum) Italian semifreddo!

Mad Scientist

Excellent and all too true.


Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek…

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Schools shouldn’t be relying on parents to teach reading.

Esse Quam Videri

Most schools rely on parents to teach children to read.
No! I can already anticipate the angry response as teachers explain that they run weekly or bi-weekly group reading sessions and daily discrete phonics sessions…
It will make me horribly unpopular to say it but still I stand by my original claim.

I have spent too many hours on the TES early years and primary forums where teachers discuss their practice to be entirely ignorant. I’ve also read the interminable Mumsnet discussions in which mums compare notes on how much their children read at school. Mums with kids at all sorts of schools join in. There are voices from urban and rural schools. Some of their kids go to schools with mainly middle class intake others underprivileged. Ofsted outstanding and special measures are both frequently discussed. The standard system for reading instruction reflects my own knowledge of schools local to…

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I recently came across this and have only this to say.


Phonics – is there much evidence?

Esse Quam Videri

A small but exciting piece of research was completed recently. Dr Marlynne Grant has conducted a longitudinal study on a cohort of students learning to read from Reception to Year 2 with a systematic synthetic phonics programme called ‘Sound Discovery’. She followed a Reception class of 30 students in a catholic primary school designated for travellers of Irish origin. Here are a few of the findings:

  • By Year 2 the class were 28 months above their chronological age for reading and 21 months ahead for spelling. The overall achievement range was 7.07 years to 13.09 years for reading and 7.01 years to 14.09 years for spelling.
  • By Year 2 children eligible for Free School Meals were on average 24 months above their chronological age for reading and 20 months above for spelling.
  • By year 2 the boys in the class were on average 36 months above chronological age for…

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The Peculiar Person

A student spelled paculiar for peculiar. Together we established that the misspelled segment (the /ə/ sound) was in an unstressed syllable, but you can’t very well hear an identifiable vowel sound within an unstressed syllable, now can you? It’s always nice when I can point out a word relative to help a student with an unstressed vowel predicament. For this word, none came to mind. So we looked it up on, and what do you know? The word peculiar and the word person are related in origin, thus the e.

Peculiar comes from the Latin peculiaris, meaning one’s own, or personal. In English, it originally meant belonging to one person, private, like your fondness for your peculiar hairbrush.

That’s another good example of a multi-linguistic approach integrating phonology and vocabulary. A phonological question set us off on a word study venture, giving us deeper understanding into the meaning of a word!