Improving Vocabulary through Awareness

In the process of reviewing data from the new statewide progress-monitoring assessments, my principal and I found an area we could tackle for schoolwide improvement: morphology.  It’s kind of a scary word if you’re not a reading teacher, but it’s actually something we can (and do) teach across the curriculum all the time.  We just need to be a little more deliberate about it for our efforts to show up in the data.

In the simplest terms, morphology is the study of how words are formed–where they came from, and how their parts contribute to their meanings.  We have the opportunity to teach morphology all the time in all of our classes.  For example, in geometry, we talk about bisecting angles; we dissect a frog in biology; learn to navigate the intersection at a four-way stop in driver’s ed; and our government teacher talks about public sector organizations. If each of these teachers took an extra minute to discuss the Latin origin (meaning “to ‘cut”) of each of those words, students are more likely to remember the words in their other content areas and when they go home and sit on their sectional sofa to watch a documentary on a religious sect.  By defining the root and discussing how the prefixes and suffixes (bi-, di-, inter-, -tion, -or) combine with the root to make a new word with a new meaning, we’re teaching morphology.  

Our new Florida standards (B.E.S.T. Florida Standards for ELA) expect students to apply knowledge of Greek and Latin roots to determine meanings of words, starting in the third grade.  When students get to 9th grade, they are expected to use the etymology and derivations to determine meanings of words. We’ve taken two tests to measure our students’ proficiency on these new standards.  In both 9th and 10th grade, the students at my school, in our district, and across the state perform below the proficiency level at this standard.  

Not a surprise considering that our prior standards (in effect until this year) only referenced using Greek and Latin roots as one strategy for determining the meaning of words–there was no reference to teaching Greek and Latin roots.  

Moving forward, things will get better–our high school students should come to us with more knowledge of Greek and Latin roots from explicit teaching in earlier grades.  However, for the next couple of years, we’re going to have to do more–a lot more–to help our students use Greek and Latin roots (and their etymology and derivations) to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words.  It’s not as hard as it seems, and it will have a tremendous impact on their overall reading and writing.  Did you know: 

  • over 90 percent of English words with more than one syllable are Latin based, and most of the other 10 percent come from Greek roots? 
  • knowing the meaning of one root can unlock the meanings of up to 20 related words?
  • many of our ELL students’ primary languages (Spanish and Portuguese, for example) are Romance languages–meaning they also evolved from Latin?  When they recognize the root, they can make a connection to English. 

So, what do we have to do to kick-start this process for our current students?  It’s really just a matter of increasing our students’ word-consciousness–their awareness and interest in words.  Often, that starts with increasing our own word-consciousness.  

If we challenge ourselves to think about the meanings of the word parts we encounter and find interesting connections and stories to help us remember those meanings, we’ll be better prepared to share these key understandings with our students.  I have two favorite resources to share with you to help you dig deeper into the word parts you encounter in your teaching:

  • Use this site to search for etymological explanations and related words.  I especially like the comics used to illustrate some of the words.
  • Membeam offers a vocabulary learning program your school can buy, but they also have a free word-root podcast that provides 2-3 minute explanations of roots and many words.  When you click that link, look for the boxes with the speaker symbol to see the transcripts as well as a link to the audio clip.  

When I’m teaching a root in class, these two websites are my go-to sources for additional words and interesting explanations of word origins.  I always keep a dictionary nearby, too, because any conversation about word parts usually leads to more questions than answers.  It’s important to check the students’ suggestions of related words in the dictionary (online or print) to see whether or not they are of the same origin.  Showing students how I look it up and that we can all learn something together is a great way to make connections with the students as well as build their vocabulary.  

Talking about word parts is the first step.  By taking just a minute to discuss a word and its origin, we have planted a seed that will grow each time our students see a related word or have a discussion in another class.  When they learn to recognize and understand the meanings of word parts, their reading and writing vocabularies will grow and their test scores will improve. 

Stay tuned for more teaching tips and resources for developing students’ understanding of word parts.  We’ve got until May to get those scores up to proficient, so I’ll be working with teachers and students at my school on a variety of projects to increase our word-consciousness and our understanding of Greek and Latin roots.  Please join us on this journey by following my blog, and if you’ve got any great etymological resources to share, please post them in the comments!    

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