Partner School Stories

Curious About Curiosity?

By Lisa Barnett


I am.

I care how this word evolved over time so I can learn about it’s orthography (spelling).

I care about my own wonderings about other words these two could possibly be related to so I will study the etymology of these words.

I care to try to understand the suffixes in this word, there’s WAY more to it than just trying to remember that ‘curious’ has a <u> and ‘curiosity’ does not.

Most of all, I care to bring understanding of this language that we speak so easily, to my students who struggle to either read, spell, comprehend or any combination of those.

This makes me curious. Curious to learn more and more about how the English language is structured. Is it possible to bring sense or order to spelling?

One thing I remember hearing often as a child was the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat,” which in some small but profound way, ebbed at my innate curiosity each time I asked a question and was met with the phrase by an adult.

Eventually, I began to stop wondering, stop questioning, stop thinking when words, individual or in groups, didn’t make sense. I saw my students doing the same thing.

Fortune rained down one afternoon during one of my many, fervid internet searches for a better way to teach phonics. I found the same components of what I’d been doing, repackaged in oodles of programs, but I also stumbled upon something different.

Something led by wondering, questioning and thinking. Something built on scientific principles of inquiry, hypothesizing, testing theories, research and the building of actual evidence within the language itself!

I had clicked on a presentation given by Dr. Pete Bowers of Word Works Kingston on Structured Word Inquiry (also known as Scientific Word Investigation).  Boy, was my curiosity piqued!! He was talking about spelling in a way that made sense!  In a way that connected words to other words! He was not looking for patterns or chunks or sounding words out.  He wasn’t doing any of the strategies that every other program was touting. He wasn’t even teaching or selling a program, he was simply uncovering the sense and order of the real and true structures of our language and he’d been doing it with elementary students.

My curiosity got the best of me for the next few years.  I’ve reopened wondering, questioning and thinking about spelling, reading, ….well, all of literacy actually.  There is an oasis beyond phonics, beyond whole language, beyond balanced literacy and beyond memorizing spelling lists. And it isn’t just studying morphology. It is the interrelationship (dependency on each component) of morphology, etymology and phonology that drive the structures of this language.  Each of these ‘ologies can influence the how and why of orthography.

Here’s an example of a small word study we are doing for the kick-off of the Positivity Project at our school.  The first character trait we will study is ‘curiosity’.

Historically, the words ‘curious’ & ‘curiosity’ link back to the Modern Day English (MDE) word ‘cure’ and even further back, to the Latin etymon ‘cura‘ which has an orthographic denotation of (sense of meaning of) “care”.

When one is curious or his/her curiosity is piqued, one cares so much, he/she wants to know more.

Analytic Word sums (separate [verb] the orthographic morphemes):

  • curious —>   cure/ + i + ous                                            
  • curiosity —> cure/ + i + ose/ + i + ty

[the / bracket indicates that the vowel suffix replaced the preceding single, final, non-syllabic <e>, which is one of the 3 spelling conventions]  

Many people look at morphology, but if you also study the etymology (true sense & history), you can find more words in this family — this is where meaningful connections are really made!!

Synthetic word sums:                                                     Spelling convention applied:               

(bring together morphemes)

ac + cure/ + ate —>                            accurate                   (replace <e>)

ac + cure/ + ace/ + y —>                    accuracy                 (replace <e> 2x’s)

in + ac + cure/ + ace/ + y —>           inaccuracy              (replace <e> 2 x’s)

in + ac + cure/ + ace/ + y/i + es —> inaccuracies          (replace <e> 2x’s; toggle <y> to <i>)

se + cure ->                                         secure                        (No spelling conventions applied)

se + cure/ + i + ty —>                          security                  (replace <e>)

mane/ + i + cure —>                       manicure                  (replace <e>)

pede/ + i + cure —>                         pedicure                   (replace <e>)

All words in this family carry the sense of ‘care’ in them.

  • accurate:      done with care
  • inaccurate:   not done with care
  • secure:         free from care of dread or danger
  • manicure:     caring for one’s hands;
  • pedicure:      caring for one’s feet

There are many more and plenty of evidence for that Replace the <e> spelling convention too:

        cure/ + able →           curable

in + cure/ + able →            incurable

        cure/ + ate/ + or →     curator

pro + cure →                       procure

But it isn’t necessary to represent every word in a word family…besides, it leaves you curious for more, doesn’t it?!

Studying the etymology of a word is far more valuable than many people recognize or understand.  It uncovers meaningful connections.

It is in these connections and in these denotations that depth of meaning finds a new layer to anchor to, causing comprehension to increase.

Another way to represent word families is in a Lexical Word Matrix:

If your curiosity is piqued, you can learn more from the many resources listed on the Resources and Blogs tabs of my site, Mrs. Barnett’s Buzzing Blog.  I highly suggest taking a look at the research links on Word Works Kingston’s website.  A colleague recently posted a stellar article on her website, Learning About Spelling that you may want to read. Two more superb articles that explain SWI well are linked here (Mrs. Steven’s Classroom Blog) and here (Ann Whiting of Word Nerdy).  Of course, you’re always welcome to post your wonderings, questions and musings in the comments section of my blog.

Enjoy curiosity, it is a characteristic that has created inventions, life-saving devices, solved world problems and so much more….I bet the guys at Positivity Project are full of curiosity!  







Lisa Barnett
Special Education Teacher, Tomek-Eastern Elementary

I am a Special Education Teacher at Tomek-Eastern Elementary in Fenton, Michigan.  In our resource room, we develop an understanding of the English language by studying the interrelationship between morphology, etymology and phonology on a daily basis.  This helps us learn literacy skills as well as critical thinking skills while applying the scientific method of making an observation about a spelling, questioning, hypothesizing, researching and building a bank of evidence for or against our theories. Studying words/orthography in this way leads to positive, growth-minded attitudes about learning in general.