Olympic Word Study Part 3: Gold

The Olympic rings are an iconic symbol dating back to 1913. The five colored rings along with the white background are said to have represented the colors of the flags of all the competing countries in the Olympics at that time. Just 14 countries competed in the first Olympics in 1896. That number grew to 29 in 1912. During the 2022 Winter Games, over 2,900 athletes from 85 countries are competing in this international event. It seems only fitting to up our game in word study to triple axels, which leads me to the lesson my kids and I did during the 2018 Olympics.

Related Words + Drop Rule

After some discussion with my kids about all the different nations represented in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, we landed on a word sum hypothesis for international

inter + nate/ + ion + al → international

The / at the end of  <nate> represents a proposed dropped single Silent-e. My kids had already learned suffix -ion which is why we were able to propose a hypothesis at a deeper level, but your student’s hypothesis could be:

inter + nation + al → international

What do you think the word international means? Engage in a discussion about prefixes and their impact on a word’s meaning. Here we have the prefix inter- meaning “between, among.” Does this help you better define the word international? Think of some other words that might contain your proposed base word. Build word sums and create sentences to give meaning in context.

nations, national, nationally, nationality, nationwide

When my kids and I studied the word international, it didn’t take long before we skated on over to etymonline to learn more. We drilled down to the word nation and discovered the Latin root natus, meaning “be born.” Then we put “natus” in the etymonline search field (a helpful way to identify related words), and we discovered other words that are derived from this same Latin root. We reviewed the entries for these words and also clicked on the “related words” links to discover more. When we found words that shared the historical root natus and the same present-day English (PDE) base word spelling as our proposed base <nate>, we added them to our international family word list. We reviewed the spelling of these related words and created word sums.

To support our word sum hypothesis, we needed to validate our proposed base word spelling. We started by removing the Latin suffix -us from the historical root natus. This left us with “nat”. We discussed whether or not there is a single Silent-e at the end of the base word, consulting the list of related words we had made in search of evidence. We concluded that the related words innate and neonate were evidence that there is a single Silent-e at the end of this base word. Then we checked our other word sums to see if any adjustments were needed, such as reflecting the Drop e where applicable. Finally, we began filling in a word matrix to reflect this large word family.

For words to be part of the same word matrix, they need to share the same historical root and the same PDE base word spelling. Review your proposed word sums to ensure they meet this criteria before adding them to your word matrix.

Either notice or teach the Drop rule (drop the single Silent-e) as part of this lesson, using the 3 Great Spelling Rules.

The more related words we identified, the more we recognized that affixing can change pronunciation. Compare the changes in pronunciation for: nation, nature, innate, and international. What a wonderful way to connect an understanding of morphology, etymology, and phonology by diving deeper into these words. Take the time to read your related word list aloud. Notice which words have a short /a/ sound in the base word <nate> and which have a long /ae/ sound. Look for affixing patterns that cause this shift in vowel pronunciation.

Rooted in Language believe in functional teaching and that has worked well for my family! What is functional for each student may differ depending on their learning level. In word study, this may mean creating a word sum that identifies most of the affixes, but not all. Likewise, you may analyze some derivatives in a word family rather than all.

UPDATE: At the time that we did this lesson on international, our best understanding was to conclude that the base word was <nate>. Years later, after a greater depth of understanding and growing vocabulary, we came to identify the word naive as a derivative of this same word family which provides evidence that we have a PDE base word that consists of (wait for it) — a single letter — that holds the primary meaning of this word family. Consider:

 n + a + ive → naive
(with Latin connector vowel <a>)

which caused us to revise our hypothesis for international to

inter + n + ate/ + ion + al → international

We recognize -ive and -ate as common suffixes. We know naive (a sense of innocence or newly born) and international are etymologically related since they are derived from the same historical root. And so, we now hypothesize that this word family has a bound base word of <n> meaning “be born”! Is this depth of analysis necessary? Certainly not. You don’t always need to analyze a word all the way, and you shouldn’t analyze a word further than you can confidently justify. You can always save it for another day or another year.



When we think of winners, and certainly Olympians, we think of medals - Who wins a medal? What sport did they medal in? Did they win gold, silver or bronze? Are they really medals or medallions? What is the metal content of the Olympic medals this year? Should we ever meddle in the training of an Olympian? There is no doubt that the competition will test the athletes’ mettle! 

If you’re up for a few more triple axels, consider not only the derivatives of the word medal but also a few homophones and their relatives. This level of word study emphasizes the importance of context and meaning and calls for a deeper review of each word’s etymology. Follow a similar process as the words we’ve previously studied to gain an understanding of the spelling and meaning behind:

medal, metal, meddle, mettle

The word study inquiry and investigation process can feel like the Olympic figure skating long program. You’re trying to put together many different skills, and sometimes you hit a divot, stumble, and fall. You may be left with more questions than answers, but it’s all a valuable part of the learning process. To get started, here are some things to consider as you study these homophones:

  • What are your proposed word sums? What evidence can you find to support your base word hypotheses? Search for related words.
  • How are these homophones related etymologically, if at all?
  • How can we keep the spelling between medal and metal straight when they can sound so similar? Look at some derivatives, such as metallic to help isolate that there is a letter t in the related word metal.
  • How can we distinguish between -al and -le spellings? Is there a relationship between these two elements? Use the etymonline search field to dig a little deeper.

Here again, the study of the word meddle is an opportunity to notice or teach the Drop rule. Also, the study of the words medal and metal present another opportunity to notice or teach the Doubling rule.


Gold Medal Challenge - Alternant Base Words

For a final word study challenge, consider that the Olympic rings represent the five continents as a symbol of all these nations from each continent coming together. How would you define continent? What is your word sum hypothesis? What is the historical root and its meaning?  What words are in the same word family as continent? How many different base words are derived from the same Latin historical root as continent?

Recall in our study of international that we entered the Latin historical root in the etymonline search field to find related words. When you review the related words for continent, remember that words in the same family (on the same word matrix) share both the same historical root and the same PDE base word spelling. But we know that words have come into English along many different paths which sometimes results in spelling variations of base words, even though the words can be traced all the way back to the same historical root. We call these alternant base words. They’re related etymologically, but not morphologically, so they do not go on the same word matrix.

The fact that many words share the same historical root helps us understand words with related meaning but different base word spellings, like pertain and pertinent or retain and retention. So, use etymonline and all the words that resulted from your search of the historical root for continent to discover the alternate base words. Sort words by what could be their base word spellings, looking for patterns, making a list of all the word relatives you find for each of the alternate base words. How many alternate bases did you find? (Hint:They are all reflected in the bold words in this paragraph.) Talk about how the meanings and functions of the words you’ve discovered are similar or different given their common historical root and different affixing. This level of analysis led my kids to discover the relationship between the word tenet, which happens to be the title of one of their favorite movies, and the word continent. And when the learning is relevant in their eyes, it feels like a gold medal moment to me!!


Just as every Olympic athlete has a story, every word has a story. When it comes to word study, you don’t need to attempt Olympic feats of grandeur your first time on the ice. Settle into your skates, or just your winter boots, with Part 1 of this blog if you haven’t explored it already, and see how gliding on the ice feels. Get comfortable before you move on to the jumps and spins shared in Part 2, and then be brave and try the triple axels shared here. There is no pinnacle in word study, so simply enjoy your time on the ice.

~ Linda


Free download: olympic word study resources

Rooted in Language's Word Study Packet introduces word study concepts along with strategies that can be applied repeatedly throughout your schooling. Alien Bugs Word Study provides skill practice through activities and games. The Foundations for Teaching Reading, Writing & Spelling educator class includes a deep dive into word study and explicitly teaches these skills and processes across all ages and stages of literacy.

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