Sign In
Sign In
Register for Free

English vocabulary – 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, observes David Voisin

David Voisin
by David Voisin
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Year 7 English worksheets – Jungle descriptive writing lesson plan and resources

“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

You might also be interested in...