Thinking: etymology / morphology

I don’t proclaim to be an expert in any of this, although I would rather like to be. I aim to grow and nurture a blog filled with reflections on research and practice, including my own, which will propagate the notion that vocabulary development be at the heart of our day-in-day-out teaching.

Last week, I outlined this as the first point in an action plan of sorts for 2017/18:

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The word avocado originates from the Aztecs referring to the fruit as ahuakatl, which was their word for testicle. Because, you know, it looks like one. And, in fact, it could be argued that the Aztecs believed it to be an aphrodisiac. When the Spaniards, erm, ‘visited’, they thought it sounded like aguacate. Which the English then modified to avocado (1). Why am I telling you this? Because it’s cool and interesting, no?! But is it really necessary for an eight-year-old? Yes, it is! Explaining the origins of words can help to inspire a love for words in children.

There is also huge benefits to having a growing knowledge of frequently-used Latin and Greek root words. There’s a tremendous table of these in the references section at the bottom (2). What do you think the bold word means in this sentence?

When the police questioned the malefactor about his evil deeds, they were shocked when he laughed in their faces.

If you don’t, what are you now doing to try and gain some sort of understanding of the word? If you know your Latin/Greek roots, you’ll know that mal means bad. You may now be applying that linguistic nugget to other words you know like malevolent or malodorous. Now you have a clearer picture of what the word might mean, you’d then start to look at the context the word has been used in. Words like police, evil, shocked, and the phrase laughed in their faces are now all painting new strokes into the picture you’re creating of the new word.

malefactor: a person who commits a crime or does something wrong.

How close were you if you hadn’t heard the word before? I picked one that I thought would be fairly unheard of to most (myself included).

This process forms a crucial part of our ‘word attack skills’, a phrase first introduced to me very recently by Kelly Ashley (@kashleyenglish). Check out her terrific posts on her Word Power! training sessions (see references 3, 4, 5). Children are capable of doing this. Of thinking like this. We have to show them. We have to model doing it ourselves.

As previously mentioned, I’d like to run a ten-minute Word Workshop every day. At the moment, I’m thinking of having etymology – with specific focus on a Latin/Greek root – as one of the sessions.


“In order to analyse words, children need to have sufficient word-attack skills to break words apart into their constituent morphemes.  A morpheme is a unit of meaning within a word.” – Kelly Ashley (see reference 5).

Before I get started on this, I implore/beg/entreat you to take the time to read the newsletter available to download here. It’s from @HertsEnglish and is entirely focused around vocabulary. The first article, brilliantly written by Sabrina Wright, is all about morphology. There’s so much in there that I was enthusiastically nodding along with. She understands morphological knowledge to include ‘root words, compound words, suffixes, prefixes and the origins of words (etymology)’.

I love this graphic in Sabrina’s article which shows how you’d morphologically decompose the word ‘hopefully’:

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A healthy knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, and how they change/add to the meaning of a word, is imperative. Take the prefix -un (meaning notunkind, unrelenting) for example. Did you know that it accounts for 26% of all prefixes in English? The next highest is -re (meaning again: redo, rewrite) at 14%. If you’re interested, the suffix -s/-es accounts for 31% of all suffixes, with -ed notching up 20%. Wait, that’s over half of all suffixes! Thanks to @WordAware for those stats (6).

Developing morphological knowledge will form another of the daily Word Workshop sessions in my classroom next year. Keep an eye on the blog from September for weekly updates on how these sessions are going.

I’d like to leave you with an activity to try from the Word Aware book referenced below. I keep mentioning it. I know. But seriously, it’s that good. This activity is called What’s the difference? and it presents children with a table with a number of rows. On each row there’re two words and a third column to ask how the words are different.


How are they different?

bicycle         tricycle                A bicycle has two wheels, and a tricycle has three.

The children have to circle the part of the word that is different from its pair, and then explain how the difference alters the meaning of the root word, which, in this case, is cycle.

Also, check this out from @storimagic:

morphology maker

What a brilliant, simple, and inexpensive idea!


Since this blog began, only three short weeks ago, it’s been hugely encouraging to see lots of people on Twitter interacting with not only the blog and its posts, but with each other, and with vocabulary in general. The people who’ll benefit most from all this are the children in our classes.

Questions and considerations:

  • Do you have any awesome etymology / morphology related activities to share? I’d love to use this blog to create a bank of activities. Please share either on Twitter, or in the comments section below.


(1) – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Forsyth, 2011).

(2) –

(3) –

(4) –

(5) –

(6) – Word Aware: teaching vocabulary across the day, across the curriculum.

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