Word parts: a retrospection

I was visiting a speech therapist at the elementary school I’d be going to next year. We were in a one-room trailer next to the main building.

“Thermometer”

“Therm-mem-memeter.”

It was obvious to me that I hadn’t said it right. It was obvious to her too. We’d been working on this word since someone had first brought it up. Had it been my therapist, who knew to look for words that would challenge me? Had it been me, a kid who grew up around thermometers, barometers, and rain gauges? This time, she tried a new tack:

“There’s a ‘mom’ in the middle of the word. Like your mom. ‘Ther-mom-meter.’ Try it with me.”

Mom was an easy word to say. I knew it. It was short. I didn’t say thermometer right the first time after that moment, but it anchored my efforts. It gave me the steps I needed to cross the stream.

When I remembered that moment recently, I was thinking of it in terms of alternate ways of understanding words. Conventionally, thermometer is made up of two constitutive parts – thermo (heat) and meter (measure). Finding the “mom” in “thermometer,” by contrast, feels like a mnemonic, a trick, an extra layer of personal meaning. It is wordplay. Knowing roots and etymologies provides a great tool for understanding language in new contexts. Vocal play is another way to get into the word and understand it as my own.

However, writing the anecdote out this time, I remember that I didn’t know how to read! I could not check myself through any kind of visual reminder of the word’s sounds. I was dependent on her repetition. I was beginning to model her way of breaking words down into their constituent phonemes. The “mom” in thermometer was not a generalizable feature – always say those three letters in the same way. It was a vowel that only held consistency through repetition – a repetition that only gradually transformed /ɛ/ to /ɔ/.

I remember for years afterward being fascinated by how words could be broken down. When we learned about syllables in elementary school, I wondered why the dictionary would split a word up one way instead of another – why ther·mom·e·ter and not ther·mo·me·ter or ther·mo·met·er? Was there a system to syllabification that I didn’t know? Did it pick the easiest combination to pronounce?

My question was not helped by spelling books, which would often pick its word lists based on common features of words. A unit might focus on double-consonants, word with ei in them, or the dreaded silent consonant. (Spaghetti was a particular trip.) Sounds make words relate one way. Syllables can divide words in any of several ways. Characters can be sounded out in several ways. Mastery required memorizing and internalizing a set of rules that weren’t my own.

I sometimes ask other people (colleagues, students, people I tutor) how they’re using the dictionary. In this very informal poll, they most often use it when they don’t know a word’s meaning, spelling, or pronunciation. These are all good, necessary uses.

At the same time, as my work requires me more and more to read carefully, I marvel at the times I’ve obtained important insights from looking up seemingly familiar words. Can, chase, quarrel.

An example: off the top of my head, quarrel means a fight or dispute between two parties. Looking it up, it has a meaning (from a separate root) meaning a bolt or other piece of ammunition. Then its meaning of dispute connects not to any old argument or feud but to legal suits and complaints, trials by combat, as well as literary debates about the place of women. Quarrels are genres of speech heard by judges and audiences of readers. Even combat can be a rhetorical move, as it is construed to speak the guilt or innocence of each combatant’s cause. If someone says the family of King Lot is having a quarrel with Lancelot and his relations, that term emphasizes the stress the conflict puts on the legal system carefully maintained by Arthur.

I’m still not sure I know how best to teach others to recognize when a word may not mean what they expect it to mean. How do we listen for the echoes of other meanings? How do we find the incongruities in our present understanding? Is it a matter of noticing when a word or phrase is important to a sentence grammatically? When a key term keeps coming up? When I’m baffled and ask, “Whoa, I thought we were talking about this and now we’re talking about that?”

I know some things I do to help people towards that. For instance, I love a good “word study” assignment, where I ask someone to look up a word in an excerpted literary text in the Oxford English Dictionary. They summarize what it can mean and then demonstrate what the word could mean in that context. Seeing the options – that there’s more than one option! – helps, I think. I also model reading passages, narrating my process of figuring out what something could be saying.

I think wordplay also plays a part. When we’re aware that our understandings of words can be shifted and manipulated, can we not also extend that understanding to what we read? As a result, can we not also be receptive to the possibility of an author’s wordplay, and the inflections that come from that author’s own disposition to speech?

I hope the answer to both of those questions is “yes.”

I can’t be sure that speech therapy gave me the metacognitive skills that help me read well. I can’t show that. However, I certainly think it did, and when I teach close reading I still think of those moments struggling to learn to say thermometer, of making a word familiar to meet its strange and foreign gestures.

It seems to help.

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