English vocabulary – Why word origins are pivotal in enhancing language skills

If we can help students understand where words come from, they’ll make great strides in their vocabulary acquisition, observes David Voisin

David Voisin
by David Voisin

David Voisin takes us on a rich, and sometimes surprising journey through the realms of literacy and vocabulary…

Words of French origin

Esprit d’escalier

Have you ever belatedly realised you could have said something witty in a conversation but missed the opportunity? There’s an expression that describes precisely this feeling – ‘To have an esprit d’escalier’.

It was coined by the French philosopher Denis Diderot as he left a dinner party and realised he’d missed a sagacious comeback. The saying literally means ‘spirit of the stairs’, due to the way reception rooms in bourgeois 18th century France were situated on upper floors. Being at the bottom of the stairs was thus synonymous with ‘having left the party’.


The word ‘connoisseur’ derives from the old French meaning ‘Someone who has a special knowledge or appreciation of a field.’

In modern French there are two verbs for the term ‘to know’ – connaître and savoir. We find savoir in the expression ‘Savoir faire’, which is synonymous with ‘social know-how’. ‘Faire’ (French for ‘to do’) also appears in the term ‘laissez-faire’ which literally means ‘let do’.

‘Venez m’aider’

Have you ever wondered where the shout for help, ‘mayday’, comes from? It’s a phonological and anglicised version of the French ‘venez m’aider’ (come and help me).

It immediately calls to mind the word ‘aid’, as in ‘first aid’ – an expression first coined by a British radio officer in London, most likely due to its phonological simplicity – hence its subsequent use and practicality in air combat situations.

Language and linguistics

Negative concord

The term ‘pedant’ is etymologically connected to the Italian for ‘teacher’ – and one example of pedantry commonly uttered in classrooms is ‘You said you did not do nothing wrong, which means you have done something wrong.”

This particular word arithmetic doesn’t work, however, because two negatives, in fact, do not make a positive. In linguistics, this is called ‘negative concord’ – a device commonly used for emphasis in northern 17th century England.

It’s only by pure chance that the country’s Capital was in the south, where ‘any’ was preferred to ‘no’ – which might explain why negative accord now tends not to appear in formal parlance.

The double negative is actually standard in French, as memorably shown in Edith Piaf’s famous song ‘Je ne regrette rien’ – literally, ‘I don’t regret nothing’.

Splitting infinitives

Much grammatical terminology is relatively little known among most native English speakers. For instance, unless you’re studying a foreign language, you’re unlikely to use the term ‘infinitive’. Consequently, the saying ‘You can’t split an infinitive’ is gradually dying out.

However, like many so-called rules insisted on by zealous pedants, this phrase has no historical or linguistic validity. The saying stems from a time when grammarians were trying to shoehorn the English language into a Latin mold. In Latin, infinitives (the base form of a verb, bereft of any pronoun or tense marker) are always one word.

The same goes for Latin-based languages such as Spanish and French, where the mark of infinitives are endings like those of the French word ‘parler’ (to speak), or its Spanish equivalent, ‘hablar’.


When discussing grammar, teachers will sometimes resort to simplistic language, such as ‘describing words’ or ‘doing words’. Linguists will use the term ‘modify’, rather than ‘describe’ when explaining the nature and function of words, so that an adjective modifies a noun.

It’s often said that adverbs ‘modify’ a verb, which is sometimes true, but not the whole story. An adverb can also modify an adjective, or indeed another adverb.

For example, ‘The singer is very talented’ – the adverb ‘very’ here modifying the adjective ‘talented’. Additionally, adverbs can modify a whole clause – as ‘additionally’ does in this very sentence.

Watch out for words that can be adjectives or adverbs: ‘This problem is hard (adjective). He worked hard (adverb) on the problem. He hardly (adverb) saw any issues.’

Teaching tips

Make use of the context

When teaching Tier 2 vocabulary explicitly, I’ve always found it useful to start by exploring words ‘in situ’. Presenting examples in directive context – that is to say, where contextual information is enough to illustrate the meaning of a word – is a good way of introducing new vocabulary, and can be used for reading practice followed by discussions around the new word.

The next phase would involve a more in-depth exploration of the word – using, for example, the sections of the Frayer model:

  • Provide an example
  • Provide a non-example
  • What would be a great definition for this word?
  • What are the key characteristics of the word?

These rubrics can, of course, be amended in order to shift the focus on to other lexical aspects, such as root words, words of the same lemma, grammatical variations, semantic fields and so forth.

The third phase consists of going back to the texts (presented in a different order) with gaps in lieu of the words. For differentiation, clues can be provided at the bottom to indicate different parts of the words, such as affixes, morphological elements or anagrams, for instance.

Finally, a few days later, pupils are given a multiple-choice questionnaire, where the targeted words are presented with four options to choose from.

When opting for synonyms rather than definitions, it’s important to ensure that the words belong to the same grammatical category (e.g. ‘all verbs’), so that the focus can be on semantics and receptive knowledge, and not on inflectional grammar. If the difficulty is gauged at the right level, you’ll be aiming for an average accuracy of around 80%.

Reading to the class

If you’re a form tutor and have frequent reading sessions scheduled (as can often be the case with school literacy policies), it’s worth bearing in mind some useful pointers.

Firstly, it’s not just students who can become prone to cognitive overload. Reading to a whole class while tacitly monitoring and dealing with behaviour – perhaps by making your reading peripatetic and making eye contact with any pupils off-task – makes it easy for teachers to lapse into a mechanical reading mode, where comprehension is likely to get lost.

It’s therefore important to do some preparation, which won’t require much more beyond reading a single chapter in advance. Even this might sound time-consuming, but knowing the plot of a book is important for checking that students have understood the key points following a reading session. Otherwise, it could take very little for a class to lose the thread of a story, which risks them losing interest in the book, and at worst, coming to see reading itself as being a chore.

Reading in advance also lets teachers highlight interesting vocabulary that might be worth teaching explicitly at the end of a session, without interrupting the flow of the class’ reading. To boost pupils’ enjoyment, ask your more keen readers to read out loud, and use differentiated questions with proficient readers to boost their confidence, so that you can check everybody’s comprehension of what’s been read.

Don’t forget that rich vocabulary can be used in writing, too. Written feedback is an oft-neglected opportunity for introducing new vocabulary. The use of directive context or recasting can help pupils decipher the meaning of new words independently, particularly when delivered via positive or productive comments.

Stories matter

In his 1922 book English for the English, the primary teacher and early school inspector George Sampson wrote that “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English”.

He was making the point that it’s incumbent upon us all to model rich language to our students – but from a certain perspective, we could derive from this the rather stern injunction that the quality and variety of language we teach is entirely predicated on our own verbal ability.

However, not all teachers feel particularly eloquent or expert in their use of language. This dictum thus surely runs the risk of leaving some feeling left out – or does it?

How and when

When it comes to vocabulary instruction, it’s important to remember that it’s not just what you teach that matters, but also how and when you teach it.

The American psychologist and education specialist Daniel T. Willingham has previously pointed out that stories are exceptionally powerful tools for improving memory – so it follows that being a talented raconteur may well prove to be a valuable skill when engaged in vocabulary instruction.

Teachers will typically approach this activity while thinking about the scripted instruction of Tier 2 or Tier 3 words, and pondering whether to make use of pre-planned resources, such as the Frayer model.

And yet, the best and most memorable vocabulary lessons can often emerge naturally from impromptu class conversations and quirky anecdotes shared by personable and passionate teachers.

Steven Pinker once observed that “Language allows us to shape events in other people’s heads”. In a similar vein, stories can help us to engrave a better grasp of language into students’ memories.

Same root, different words
  • Gastronomy is the art of cooking sophisticated and nourishing food. A gastric band reduces the capacity of the stomach. Snails, like all gastropods, walk on their stomachs.
  • Exorbitant literally means ‘eye (orbit) popping out’. An exothermic reaction will bring out heat. An exoskeleton is a skeleton located outside the body
  • A carnivorous animal feeds on meat. Chili con carne literally means ‘chili with meat’. The Latin root ‘carn’ is also in carnal and the less glamorous carnage.

Why you’re never too young to study etymology

Isolated cut-out photo of a Greek temple, representing English vocabulary

If we can help students understand where words come from, they’ll make great strides in their vocabulary acquisition…

“Literacy enables people to read their own world and to write their own history. Literacy provides access to written knowledge, and knowledge is power.”

These wise words, drawn from Y. Kassam’ s paper ‘Who benefits from Illiteracy?’ may as well be the mantra of modern education. University Challenge contestants introduce their field of expertise in response to the the question ‘What do you read?’. The term ‘lecture’, after all, derives from the French word for reading.

But while reading might be the best way of learning new words, a child can’t read without a sufficient range of vocabulary. Or as Ofsted starkly puts it, ‘Vocabulary size relates to academic success, and schooling is crucial for increasing the breadth of children’s vocabulary.

Infiltrating the vernacular

If we’re to teach vocabulary efficiently, our first aim should be to understand where English words originate from and how they are structured. Sadly, however, it’s often assumed that morphology and etymology are the preserve of people trained in linguistics or classics.

Yet no one needs to be the next Mary Beard before adopting a morphological approach to vocabulary instruction. The Education Endowment Foundation national content manager (and regular Teach Secondary contributor) Alex Quigley, has previously remarked that, “Recognising how parts of words relate in word families helps our children to develop deeper word knowledge that helps accelerate the growth of their vocabulary”.

Historically, English is an amalgamation of Germanic (i.e. Anglo Saxon or Old English) and French. Few people realise that after 1066, French became the official language of England for nearly three centuries – meaning that those who could read and write, did so in French.

The implications of this are important for English vocabulary. Besides the sheer size of the English lexicon, it’s interesting to note how words of French origin tend to preponderate in Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary groups, while words of Germanic origin tend to crop up more often in Tier 1 vocabulary.

A good illustration of this would be the words ‘child’ (Old English) and ‘infant’ (French), or ‘teen’ (Old English) and ‘adolescent’ (French). French itself is descended from Latin and Greek, of course, which have both separately infiltrated the English vernacular throughout history.

Word architecture

While phonics teaching focuses on the relationship between sounds and spellings (phonemes and graphemes), morphology amounts to the study of word parts – morphemes being the minimum meaning-bearing units in English.

As the writers of the scholarly paper ‘Ending the Reading Wars’ point out, “Research has shown that teacher knowledge of morphology is scarce and patchy, with many teachers unaware of the ways in which morphemes communicate meaning and govern spelling construction. This seems to be a critical gap in teachers’ knowledge”.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but learning a foreign language can actually be one of the best ways of accessing challenging vocabulary in your own tongue. Notwithstanding the transferable self-discipline, routines and strategies students must acquire to learn another language, MFL lessons entail rich opportunities for exploring the architecture of words.

Language teachers are moreover a great source of knowledge when it comes to understanding morphology. After all, morphemes of Latin or Greek origin will be the same as their equivalents in French, English, Spanish or Italian.

Semantic doors

One huge advantage of root words and other morphemes is that they tend not to discriminate based on discipline. Take the Morpheme ‘quad’, for instance. On its own, it can refer to a four-wheeled motorcycle/car hybrid. It can also be found in the ‘quadriceps’ muscle group; the mathematical terms ‘quadrilateral’ and ‘quadratic equation’; the taxonomy of four legged creatures (quadrupeds); the medical term ‘quadriplegic’; the list goes on.

Another helpful aspect of morphemes is that they don’t just appear in rare words. Consider the morpheme ‘magn’ – if a student understands that it broadly means ‘big’ (as in ‘magnum’), a semantic door is instantly opened to further literary terms, such as ‘magnitude’ or ‘magnanimous’ (the latter literally meaning ‘large soul’). Common morphemes, once taught, represent a perfect bridge between the basic or common lexicon and rarer words.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals. That’s why, as any bilingual speaker will tell you, acquiring twice as many words as a monoglot doesn’t take twice as much effort.

The more words you know, be it in one or more languages, the more economical the cognitive load of language acquisition becomes. This is because the process is ultimately all about the successful encoding of information.

Morphemes provide recycled information in the form of orthography (spelling) or semantic clues (meaning). Employing a morphological approach for learning purposes is therefore all about simplification. It’s about capitalising on information that’s already stored in our long term memory.

Difficult or rare words might not be as frequent in the language our students commonly use. However, their building blocks (etymological roots, affixes, other morphemes) certainly will be.


The benefit of understanding how to deconstruct words, or identify other words from the same lemma (word family) extend far beyond English vocabulary growth and reading comprehension. It also endows users with greater flexibility for writing.

Morphologically-related words don’t necessarily share the same grammatical characteristics. Consider the term clear (adjective), versus clearly (adverb), clarity (noun) and clarify (verb). We can use these in different structures while retaining the same meaning. For example:

  • ‘Your message was clear…’
  • ‘Your message was clearly presented…’
  • ‘The clarity of your message was such…’
  • ‘There was no need to clarify your message…’

One of the processes we’re seeing here is nominalisation – the changing of verbs or adjectives into nouns. As well as helping to avoid tedious and cumbersome repetition, nominalisation allows a writer to change their whole style or register of writing. This is something that’s particularly useful in scientific writing.

Judiciously used, you can use morphology to gather clues about new words (comprehension); link those to other words known by students (reducing cognitive load) and introduce other complex words through common etymological roots.

Built-in automatism

During a recent Spanish lesson, one of my students encountered the word ‘luces’, meaning ‘lights’. When I asked them for a related word in English they suggested ‘lucid’, for which I offered the following definition – ‘When you are lucid, you see things clearly.

I then presented the verb ‘elucidate’. I defined this as ‘bringing something to light, to enlighten the meaning of something.’

So it was that one Spanish word allowed me to introduce four Tier 2 words, all containing the same morpheme.

The efficient exploration of English vocabulary shouldn’t be an occasional practice but a built-in automatism. Every opportunity matters. Each new word encountered should trigger questions about its:

  • architecture
  • grammatical nature
  • related words
  • semantically-related words of a different grammatical nature

Most important of all, make systematic reference to morphemes previously encountered. This allows students to build cognitive bridges with vocabulary they have already assimilated and deepen their word depth.

English vocabulary teaching idea

Familiarising your students with the most prevalent root words and affixes via classroom displays and visual resources can be a useful strategy. I personally use a laminated double-sided roots table alongside an electronic copy.

These are quicker to access than etymology dictionaries. They’re perfect tools for helping students to reflect on the common roots of many academic words.

To create them, I compiled a selection of 400 etymological roots based on those most prevalent in the academic word list and across the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words identified for each subject area.

David Voisin is head of MFL at a school in Lancashire.

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