Beaver Cleaver & the Battle of Hastings

. . . If you use crummy words, people will think you’re a creep!

www.homeschoolmagazine.com

By Jerry Bailey

About a year ago I was in Florida for my son’s wedding and had the TV on while getting dressed. I happened upon one of my all time favorite shows, “Leave it to Beaver.” In this episode, Wally was helping Beaver with his English homework, and Beaver was really struggling. Finally, in exasperation Beaver whined “English is really hard. Why do I have to learn this stuff anyway?” Wally replied “People judge you by the words you use Beav, and if you use crummy words, people will think you’re a creep!” I knew instantly that I was going to use those words.

But you know, Beaver was right. Why is English so hard? Well, for starters it’s HUGE. If you Google “number of English words”, you will find estimates from over 500,000 to over 1,000,000 words. Unlike many other languages, there seem to be at least 2 words for just about everything in English. Sometimes there are 3 or 4. Why is this?

For the answer to that, we need to go back to merry olde England in the year 1066. During the summer of 1066, you might have heard the following in many English households:

Pu ure faeder, de eart on heofonum; Sy bin nama gehalgod.

Cume din rice. Sy din walla on eordan swaswa on heofonum…

Does that look like English to you? Perhaps this looks a little more familiar:

Our father, who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

How did we get from “pu ure fader” to “our father?” In October of 1066 an army crossed the English Channel and conquered England. The Battle of Hastings was memorialized in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. King Henry of England lost his head, literally, and our language changed forever.

Let’s return to the present. Perhaps you’ve been travelling and you stayed in one of those hotels that puts a newspaper under your door each morning. You get up in the morning, a little bleary-eyed, and you grab the paper to see what’s going on. The whole paper looks like gibberish. In fact, you think it might be Swedish. Ha, you think, there is probably a group of Swedish people in town and the hotel mistakenly put one of their papers in front of your door. You flip on the T.V. to catch the weather, and the weather person appears to be speaking — Swedish! You flip around the channels, and everyone is speaking Swedish! You call the front desk, and, you guessed it, they answer in Swedish! How difficult would life instantly become if you didn’t speak Swedish?

I use this example because that is what happened to the English in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings. The conquering army spoke what is referred to as Norman French, a highly Latin based language. They immediately forbade the speaking of English in public! The Anglo-Saxon, Germanic language known as English was no longer the official way to conduct business. In fact, the King of England was forbidden to speak English for 300 years!

So what do you think happened? Well, parents told their children that if they wanted to succeed in school, practice law, run a business, have any kind of future they needed to learn this new language. Kids learn quickly; a lot of adults don’t. The new language was spoken in public, but in the privacy of their homes, people continued to speak the old English. It only took about 20 years for the two languages to blend, resulting in the roots of modern English. This is why English is called a “dual” language, and why there are many different words for the same thing.

Here are some examples:

play  –  recreation

dog  –   canine

chew – masticate

The words on the left are the kinds of words used in England before the Battle of Hastings. The words on the right came with the invaders. Do some of these words seem “fancy” and some “plain?” The more formal words have become standard for the academic English that is used in textbooks and most writing. We tend to use more of the plain words when we speak.

Let’s talk about learning to read this massive language. Phonology or phonics is the study of units of sound. There are 26 letters in English that combine to make 42 sounds. English language learners of all ages start by learning how to “sight read” a page, that is to look at a page of text and say the words out loud or in their heads. With children, this is largely accomplished by using words they already speak and understand. They know what a fish is, and when they see a picture of a fish with the word “fish” underneath it, they learn to decode it from text to speech. We don’t teach kids every word that starts with “f”; we teach them the “f” in “fish” and they can apply it to “find”, “fort”, “free”, etc. This works pretty well, and eventually they can “read” a whole page, one that even contains a lot of words of which they don’t know the meanings. This is the first definition of reading.

By second or third grade, most kids have mastered the ability to read phonetically, so we say they have “learned to read.” Now they are expected to read to learn, and that requires them to understand the meaning of the words they read. In public schools, this transition is called the 4th grade cliff, and many kids fall into the chasm.

Let’s look at the word “word.” What is this word composed of? Letters, syllables, and sounds, right? But what is the purpose of any word? To convey meaning. All words are made up of graphemes, phonemes, and morphemes.

grapheme = letter

phoneme = unit of sound

morpheme = unit of meaning

How do students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”? The best way to begin to comprehend this giant language called English is to use a system that capitalizes on units of meaning the same way phonology teaches units of sound. Take a look at this word.

Microspectralastrochronobiology

Have you ever seen this word before? Can you tell anything about it?  You think it’s the study of something, but how do you know? The “ology” on the end? How do you know that means “the study of something?” You know other words that end with “ology”, and you know what they mean. Good thinking!

I cheated. You haven’t seen this word before because I made it up! Does looking at it like this help? micro-spectr-al-astro-chrono-bio-log-y

Here is how I would define it: “The study (log) of small (micro) life (bio) in the stars (astral) by looking (spectr) at it over time (chrono).” I can do this because this word contains 6 roots, and by knowing what they mean I can “mean out” the word, just like phonics teaches you to “sound out” a word. The study of the smallest units of meaning in a word is called MORPHOLOGY. I used my morphological problem- solving skills to figure out what that long word meant. By the way, words are spelled like they mean, not like they sound.

Over 60% of academic text uses Latin and Greek based words. It makes sense to learn the most common roots that make up so many words. When your kids become morphological problem solvers, they will know the meanings of words they haven’t even seen yet!

Jerry Bailey is President and Chief Executive Officer of Dynamic Literacy, authors and publishers of WordBuild®A Better Way to Teach Vocabulary. A former math geek, he now freely admits to being a word nerd. You can reach him at jbailey@dynamicliteracy.com or follow him on Twitter @vocabularyman.

Author: Michael Leppert

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