Sats: why etymology boosts vocabulary and spelling

Breaking words down to uncover meaning helps learning, says Aidan Severs as he offers five ways to introduce etymology

Aidan Severs

Introducing etymology not only helps pupils' vocabulary but it can also bring extra fun to lessons, says teacher Aidan Severs

"This lesson just got interesting," exclaimed one of my more vocal pupils.  

No, I hadn’t just introduced the latest piece of edtech or revealed laminated resources that took me all evening to prepare.

I wasn’t even crouching in a home-made cage dressed as an elephant (yeah, I did that once).

All I did was look up the etymology of a word.

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I was teaching a lesson to Year 4 children about the four most common prefixes in the English language. After introducing the meaning of the prefix "re-", sharing some words that begin with it, looking at them in sentences and defining them, the children suggested some other words. One boy offered the word "respond".

The children quickly realised that without the prefix the root word appeared to be "spond", but none of us, myself included, recognised that as a word.

Word search

That’s when we looked up its etymology. We discovered that it comes from the Latin "spondere", which means "to pledge". And that’s when the lesson got interesting.

OK, so etymology (from the Greek "étumon", meaning "true sense", and the suffix "-logia", denoting "the study of") is interesting. But is it worth devoting time to its teaching?

Yes. In short, if you learn key root words including prefixes and suffixes you can understand a much wider range of words. Teaching children to recognise, or even be curious about, a word’s etymology means that rather than learning just one word at a time, they will have the keys to decode many more words.

And we know that a broad vocabulary can be a key part of how successfully a child can access and navigate the curriculum, how far they can articulate meaning in their writing and speaking, and ultimately how well they will go on to do in their exams.

Break words down

An added advantage is that breaking words down in this way is a key part of teaching spelling, so you can expect an improvement in that area, too.

But simply sitting down your class and dictating word meanings to them for 30 minutes per day is not likely to get you (or more importantly them) very far. So how can you work etymology into your lessons?

1. Take advantage of history lessons

Not-so-coincidentally, the national curriculum requires us to teach about the places, civilisations and countries that the English language stems from. Those history lessons about Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Islamic civilisations all provide excellent opportunities to teach about the legacy they have left us when it comes to the English language. Did you know "pyjamas" comes from the Urdu and Persian words for "leg" and "clothing"? Or that "window" stems from the Old Norse words for "wind" and "eye"?

2. Encourage and model curiosity

Just as with anything in the primary classroom, if the adults are excited about it, then the children are, too. Make discovering a word’s origins a regular feature of the day. If you’re reading your class novel and you come across a word, known or unknown, model aloud your thoughts: "I wonder where this word comes from?" And then find out. The standard Google dictionary is a good enough start – type the word plus "etymology" and begin your voyage of discovery.

3. Capitalise on teaching key vocabulary and spellings

When teaching subject-specific vocabulary, make the most of the opportunity to teach new root words. Point out how many scientific words have Greek and Latin roots and discuss why that is: these classical languages were seen to be the language of the educated, and it was often such educated people who made scientific discoveries. Knowing the stories behind the words will help children to remember both spellings and definitions. Using resources such as the Frayer Model to help children think of synonyms, antonyms and usage examples will also help.

4. Plan to teach prefixes and suffixes explicitly, as well as appropriate common root words

Although excitement can be had from the impromptu discovering of the backstories of words, it is a good idea to be more deliberate both in the planning and teaching of etymology. The national curriculum’s spelling appendix is a fine place to start when thinking about teaching prefixes and suffixes. There are easy-to-find lists of common Greek and Latin root words, which can also provide the foundation to a more planned-out approach to teaching etymology.

5. Play word games

Your imagination is the only limiting factor here. Playing with words can be very enjoyable and meaningful – without word play we wouldn’t have jokes, songs or many family favourite board games. Many games can be easy to prepare and don’t need to last very long. For example, you could provide a series of unknown words with a selection of possible definitions for each and have teams reason as to which is correct using etymological knowledge and then select their answer. You could ask children to write a plausible definition for an unknown word based on what they know of root words then put these definitions into a hat along with the correct definition before asking children to guess which the real definition is. Variations on these games could focus on false etymology (e.g., "bride" and "bridle" do not share the same roots), guessing the root language of a word or writing as many legitimate words that contain the root word as possible.

Aidan Severs is a deputy head at a primary school in the North of England. He tweets @thatboycanteach

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