Word Study: How to Engage Reluctant Learners

(Revision from author’s original publication in Adolescent Literacy in Perspective, March 2007, pp. 8-11.

Think of the middle and high school students you know. Which activity do you suppose they would choose?

Activity A: Read the following two stories. They are word histories. Tell these stories to two classmates. Listen to eight different stories about words from classmates. Add those words to this sheet (be certain to spell them correctly), and record a few key words to remember their history.

  1. coconut—Portuguese and Spanish explorers landed on tropical islands and found that the palm trees dropped “pods” that contained a large nut that appeared to have a face on it. Using the Portuguese word, they called it coco, meaning “grimace.” English explorers adapted the word into a compound word – coconut. We have used this word since the early 1600s.
  2. expedition—This word has its beginnings in the Latin prefix ex– (meaning “out”…think of the word exit) and ped– (meaning “foot”…think of the word pedal). At first it meant to “free one’s foot” from a snare or trap. The idea of freeing oneself to go forward was used by the military in the seventeenth century. The word came to mean a long, organized journey, the purpose of which is determined by a particular need. (When you tell this story, see if you and your classmates can determine how expedite is related.)

Activity B: Memorize the spelling and definition of the following ten words:

  1. coconut—”The fruit of the coconut palm that is a drupe consisting of an outer fibrous husk that yields coir and a large nut containing the thick edible meat and, in the fresh fruit, a clear fluid called coconut milk.” (Webster’s Third New International Diction-ary, 1993, p. 437).
  2. blah, blah, blah…and so on.

If your students are like the students I know, they pick Activity A because:

  1. It involves talking. (Need I say more?)
  2. It employs peer teaching rather than teacher preaching.
  3. It helps create memories about words, which has greater impact on long-term memory, especially for students who are challenged to memorize isolated units of information.

Word study is an across-the-curriculum activity that not only expands vocabulary, but also teaches content. So, how can we add these word histories to our students’ repertoire? Begin by looking at the words you regularly teach as vocabulary and determine which ones lend themselves to exploration of word histories. There are many excellent resources for finding these (see Appendix A). And you do not have to be the sole “finder” of these stories. Providing students with print and online resources to find word histories is just as instructive to them and adds that peer talk strategy to the work.

Next, use words from your content area to create word webs and activities that show relationships between words. I liked to play “Find your family” with my preservice teachers as a way to create small groups (I never “counted off” in a literacy class). Any related words can be printed on cards and passed out to students, who then hunt for their words’ “relatives.” After the group is formed, we review the family relationships before moving on to a small-group activity. For instance, I might use the vis/vid (Latin, meaning “to see”) family with video, visual, visible, and visor to create a group of four. Some science “families” might be thermo (heat), scop (watch), bio (life), and hypno (sleep). Social studies could use geo (earth), port (carry), acro (height), and vol (turn). Language arts might use graph or scribe (one is Greek, one is Latin, both meaning “to write”), nym (name), and dict (speak). Math has many; such as cent (hundred), meter (measure), quad (four), and forma (shape). A natural extension is to create webs with these roots on posters, which can be continually added to as students find more relatives in their reading. Think of multiple words from your discipline that have a meaning connection. When sharing the families, you can make the point that words that are related in meaning are related in spelling. In fact, using that knowledge can help students who are stumped by a spelling. “Gee, I can easily write bombard, so the word bomb must have a b at the end even if I don’t hear it.” Another activity that students enjoy is “You complete me.” The name of the activity makes a point—you can’t just memorize the spelling or meaning of a word and “know” it. There are actually three important aspects of a word: (1) the word, (2) its definition, and (3) its language of origin (and what that word meant in the original language). For instance, (1) a ballad is (2) a popular song that is generally narrative and suitable for singing and is (3) from the French word balade, meaning “dancing song.” I put these three parts on separate cards and have the students find each other to complete the information about a word. The group of three shares its completed set with the larger group. I have the information on overheads so everyone gets a visual of the set as the parts are revealed. I’m always impressed with how much of this information the students remember weeks later.

Word sorting is an important strategy for developing word knowledge. This active, hands-on strategy utilizes the brain’s natural penchant to sort. You can create open or closed sorts, depending on your purpose and population. The closed sort has key words that are the known categories the students use to sort the remaining words. This is useful when you are dealing with difficult language concepts or if you have an inclusion classroom or ELL students needing guidance in such work. An open sort allows the students to decide on the categories. As long as they can justify their groupings, you accept them. Of course, you can always ask them to re-sort using key words if they are missing the point you want to make. For instance, students could be given words such as chateau, cholesterol, chalk, chain, character, chaos, chief, chandelier, chemistry, and charlatan. The categories are the three sounds of ch. Once the categories are established, take the next step and ask them why ch has these three different sounds? Chalk is from the Old English sound of ch, chateau is from the French, and chaos is from the Greek. This explains the reason we have three sounds for ch; words came to us from different languages. This also explains most of those words we sometimes feel we should call “exceptions.” In fact, 84% of English is predictable when you understand patterns and histories.

One other way to utilize word histories is to introduce eponyms related to content studies. These are words that come from people’s names. Our content areas abound with them: Fahrenheit, Celsius, boycott, leotard, raglan,  sandwich, derrick, Braille—the list goes on. Try to find cross-curricular stories that students will love to repeat (this is the sort of gossip I buy into!). Telling the story of silhouette is a good example of this. Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister during the mid-1700s. While it was tradition for aristocrats to have their children’s portrait done, Silhouette, being a man of finance, did not want to spend the money for an oil painting. So he asked the artist to simply outline the children’s features. (This is one explanation—there are others.) Art, history, and commerce all merge in this one story! And speaking of the class system, many of our multiple words that mean the same thing are due to invasions, the plague, and a large peasant population. Until the Norman conquests in 1066, the peasants spoke a Germanic-based language. The aristocracy spoke French (which is Latin-based). Thus, two complete languages joined, and “English” was born. So a poor farmer raised chickens (Germanic roots), but a rich aristocrat ate poultry (French roots). The noble class would perspire (French) or exude (Latin), but the peasants would sweat (Germanic). This is the number one way to kick those essays up a notch—get beyond the Germanic and explore the equivalent French or Latin root word. Rather than having your character ask (Germanic), he could question (French) or interrogate (Latin). This takes some word webbing and discussions to move beyond the “common,” because the 100 most frequently spoken words we use every day are Germanic; and of the next 100, 83 are Germanic. It is also fun to look at the nuances of language. Headlines help us teach how the arrangement of words and multiple meanings of the same word can throw off a reader. Some headlines I have collected are:

  1. “Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say” (Gee, you think?)
  2. “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms” (How’s he doing on those legs?)
  3. “Stolen Painting Found by Tree” (That is one smart tree!)
  4. “If Strike Isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last a While” (Now there’s an observation!).

Students will enjoy the multiple ways these can be read and interpreted. I shared a few of these with some middle school students and soon after they were searching the newspaper each day to find one of their own. Oddly enough, they even read many of the articles! So, of course, we had to write a better headline once we actually knew the content. I know, it was a sneaky way to get them to pick up (or download) the newspaper, but it worked! We need to explore (not memorize) the English language to find these rich stories, relationships, and historical roots. We provide for every student, no matter how reluctant, a new way to look at spelling and vocabulary. And we share one of the essential human needs—storytelling in social settings.

Appendix A: My Favorite Resources for Word Histories 


Almond, J. (1985). Dictionary of word origins. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.

Beal, G. (1992). The Kingfisher book of words. New York: Grisewood & Dempsey.

Branreth, G. (1988). The word book. London: Robson Books.

Bryson, B. (1990). The mother tongue. New York: William Morrow.

Davies, P. (1981). Roots: Family histories of familiar words. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Feldman, G., & Feldman, P. (1994). Acronym soup: A stirring guide to our newest word form. New York: William Morrow.

Fifer, N., & Flowers, N. (1994). Vocabulary from classical roots. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Flavell, L., & Flavell, R. (1992). Dictionary of idioms and their origins. London: Kyle Cathie.

Fresch, M. J., & Wheaton, A. (2004). The spelling list and word study resource book. New York: Scholastic.

Funk, W. (1950). Word origins. New York: Wings Books.

Gove, P. B. (Ed.). (1993). Webster’s third new international dictionary of the English language unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Grumei, W. (1961). English word building from Latin and Greek. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books.

Hoad, T. F. (1993). The concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, C. F. (1991). Mistakes that worked. New York: Doubleday.

Kennedy, J. (1996). Word stems: A dictionary. New York: Soho Press.

Klausner, J. (1990). Talk about English: How words travel and change. New York: Crowell.

Lederer, R. (1990). Crazy English. New York: Pocket Books.

Limburg, P. (1986). Stories behind words. New York: H. W. Wilson.

Merriam-Webster. (1991). The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Metcalf, A. (1999). The world in so many words: A country-by-country tour of words that have shaped our language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sarnoff, J., & Ruffins, R. (1981). Words: A book about the origins of everyday words and phrases. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Shipley, J. (1945). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Dorset Press.

Umstatter, J. (2002). Where words come from. New York: Franklin Watts.

Vanoni, M. (1989). Great expressions: How our favorite words and phrases have come to mean what they mean. New York: William Morrow.

Voorhees, D. (1993). The book of totally useless information. New York: MJF Books.

White, R. (1994). An avalanche of anoraks. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks.


Behind the name: The etymology and history of first names, http://www.behindthename.com.

Etymology: Word origins. Fun with words, http://www.fun-with-words.com/etymology.html.

Word Origins, http://www.wordorigins.org.

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