Try this today: Engaging etymologies

A common strategy for all learning is to tell memorable stories. As the cognitive psychologist, Professor Dan Willingham, states, “Stories are psychologically privileged in the human mind.” Given this fact, telling the story of the history of academic vocabulary – using ‘Engaging Etymologies’ – can make for great teaching.

If, for example, you were teaching relationships and sex education, a better understanding of the origins and changing history of the word ‘gay’ can prove revealing and powerful. Equally, to better understand social attitudes to sex, you can help pupils explore contentious words such as ‘slag’, and how this industrial term became a label for promiscuous women.

Cracking the academic code

Perhaps one of the most visible problematic flaws in pupils’ writing is inaccurate spelling.

Alas, the weekly spelling test rarely addresses personal spelling issues, and relying on a spell check can prove equally flawed.

A key issue with relying on spell checkers is that they routinely fail to address spelling errors made as a result of ‘horrible homophones’. Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently; for example, ‘their’ and ‘there’, ‘hoarse’ and ‘horse’, ‘fare’ and ‘fair’. As a result, explicitly teaching common homophones is necessary in every subject area.

One for: Maths students


Derives from: Latin ‘frangere’, meaning ‘to break’

Means: A numerical quantity that is not a whole number

Related terms: Fracture, fractal, infraction, fragment, fragile

Note: It was Arabian scholars who devised the crucial line separating the numerator above from the denominator below

I don’t think it means what you think it means…


In computer science: a computer language frequently used in KS3 that utilises colourful characters

All other subjects: ‘scratch’ does actually mean what we all think it means…

One word at a time

‘Clue’ has a more enigmatic history than most words in the English language. It’s now taken to mean a piece of evidence or information that helps bring something to light, but its origins lie in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The ball of thread used by Theseus to find his way out of the Labyrinth was called a ‘clew’.

Around the 16th century, the spelling of this term shifted to the ‘clue’ we know today. The origins of the word were gradually forgotten, and the meaning of the word broadened far beyond the myth whence it came.

Do they know?

The now standard QWERTY keyboard was originally created to slow typists down by being awkward to use…

Alex Quigley is a former teacher and the author of books Closing the Vocabulary Gap and Closing the Reading Gap; he also works for the Education Endowment Foundation as National Content Manager.