I walked into my morning classroom the other day to screams across the aisles: “The word is seerup” “No, it is sirup!” The students just couldn’t agree.

I had never even thought about this word. No idea what could be related to it, no idea where to begin. This is reminiscent of how I started teaching the writing system to my students just about a year and a half ago. I would just put up the word and we would start with question number one: What does the word mean?

I get a lot of questions like: “How should I start?” or “Well this is interesting, but I am not sure I could even begin without learning everything first.” I have even gotten, “I need a year to learn this first.”

My answer has always been, and continues to be, study it yourself first.

These are all valid questions and comments. I understand the skepticism and reluctance to begin. It can be intimidating to try something new, especially when you are responsible for the learning of the student(s) in front of you.

A year and a half ago and even the other day, I didn’t and still don’t care that I don’t know everything. I start(ed) with question one.

I took the word the students were arguing about and I put it on the board. “Is it two r’s or one?” The answer is none, but I didn’t know it until I wrote it and we went through the four questions investigating it.


What does it mean? A sticky substance delicious for pancakes and waffles. Can be made with fruit. Not jam or jelly.

How is it built? syrup -> syrup. A free base.

What are its relatives? At first glance, I am thinking in my head “medial y must be a Greek origin,” but upon further investigation this word came from Arabic sharab. This is a mistake I made. Great! We can falsify the hypothesis that this word is of Greek origin. That is called learning. More, syrup is cognate with sherbert and sorbet. Delicious!

Still haven’t accounted for the graphemes. A recent Facebook post from LEX: Linguist~Educator Exchange (see here) clarified quite a bit about the word honey and how to approach graphemes. We see in the word syrup that there is not a y, but a yr grapheme. A study of the LEX grapheme deck (a literal textbook) shows us that the yr can represent the stressed rhotic /ɝ/. This is not the same thing as the “bossy-r” in syllababble. It doesn’t stop there. The examples of lyric, pyramid, and tyranny provide evidence of the pre-vocalic nature of this grapheme.

The final answer of “both pronunciations are correct” makes sense within the context of the understanding that is gleaned from the investigation. Students aren’t left arguing and disappointed with the learning.

Further, what a great transition from the words tyranny, lyric, and pyramid to link to our social studies work on ancient civilizations.

Finally, we can add to the evidence of how pronunciation varies, but spelling remains consistent. I wonder what my explanation would have been had I not used the four questions? Quite a jam I could have been in.