Literacy is essential at all ages and stages of development. Working in a forward-thinking school, we are aiming to put literacy at the heart of the curriculum as it is the scaffold underpinning learning and understanding in all subjects.

However, after a grilling from year 10, I found that teaching etymology wasn’t necessarily having the impact I desired, and I wanted to explore how I could change that. “Miss, why do we do etymology?” I can explain that perfectly well; “I don’t remember it, so what’s the point?” That I found a little bit more difficult to answer. After some thought, research and inspection from the work of Alex Quigley and Katherine Moreton, I looked further into how we teach vocabulary explicitly within school and how this could then be remembered and applied throughout the curriculum.

I found that teaching vocabulary explicitly can sometimes be forgotten or ad-hoc, when it needs to be organised and at the forefront of everything we do. It appeared that when teaching vocabulary, we would rely on using the SEEC model to teach a key word and then go over the definition. Vocabulary became stagnant, learnt like a fact, and pupils often found it difficult to contextualise in another subject or situation.

So, what did we do?

I felt a shift when teaching the meaning of and retrieving certain morphemes, rather than mentioning etymology once and forgetting it. Pupils appeared to understand the significance of etymology when they began remembering the significance and making the links for themselves. I also found that this became a strategy for pupils when encountering new words or remembering others. To do this, I tracked the key words in my subject throughout each year (both tier 2 and 3) and looked for the links in morphemes, alongside when they are taught. I wanted to teach each of them thoroughly and individually, with purpose, then retrieve each term as I added more.

Teaching vocabulary is not isolated to English and so I needed a bank of key words from across the curriculum. Using this, I essentially identified 30 morphemes to be taught explicitly in Key stage 3. After holding a CPD in school, I asked everybody to look at the morphemes and apply them to their key words. Teachers should, in all subjects, explicitly teach and retrieve these morphemes that apply to their contexts.

How does this work and why?

As an example, I will explore how this has been used in year 7. Pupils study Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and they will encounter words such as ‘subjugate’, ‘subservient’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘monarchy’, ‘patriarchy’ – among others. I looked at the list and focussed on ‘sub’, ‘arch’ and ‘omni’ for that term and ensured to retrieve the words and morphemes afterward. As an example, ‘arch’ means ‘first or ruler’. Immediately, this helps pupils to work out new words in context and acts as a clue when retrieving other words. These words, and this morpheme, will be used in other subjects and throughout life, therefore, it is important to ensure pupils know and understand it. We can’t teach every single word in the English language, but we can give a good foundation and strategies to help our pupils.

By the end of the term, and then the end of the year, pupils remembered the words and the meaning of the morphemes. Hearing this reinforced in other subjects, such as History, RE and Geography, and acknowledging the power of etymology from students and colleagues was exciting!

Why do I think this is effective?

  • When going over the words, the morpheme acts as a clue. This gives a coping strategy for pupils when learning new words or remembering others.
  • Pupils, particularly in key stage 3, found this interesting and enjoyed the opportunity for exploration. This also enhanced their understanding of the importance of etymology.
  • This exploration allows for a discussion of all words that link with a morpheme, rather than limiting understanding to one word, and a look at how words change with different sentences or contexts.
  • This also ensured that words were taught in cohesion with other subjects and links could be made and retrieved.
  • Implementation across school can also be a barrier to successful teaching of etymology. If all staff know the key morphemes that pupils will learn, amongst others, then this acts a constant reminder. Be it through guided reading and the introduction of new words or retrieval of key words, morphemes can be recalled and discussed in all subjects.

As this is something I am just beginning to implement, I am excited to see if teaching vocabulary explicitly through the learning of morphemes aids vocabulary and understanding over time. I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you more in 12 months!

Jen O’Malley, St Cecilia’s RC High School