Word study activities for home schooling

This pandemic has put families in the forefront for finishing out their students’ school year.  Teachers are sending ideas, updates, suggestions, even worksheets to complete.

BUT if you are looking to up the game, engage your student, and maybe even expand your own knowledge of English, here are some suggestions:

Explore word histories. If your student has content vocabulary to learn, make these words more memorable by reading about the origin. For instance:

    • Math – ZERO means “empty”
    • Social Studies – GLOBE means “to roll together or stick” (at one time maps were only flat and rolled together)
    • Science – COMET means “having long hair”
    • Art – CLAY means “sticky earth”
    • Physical Education – MUSCLE means “little mouse”
    • Language Arts – J.K. Rowling used many origins to help name her characters – Albus (white – like his beard) Dumbledore (archaic word for bumblebee – he was always humming about), Harry means “leader, ruler,” Vol de Mort means “flight of death”
    • A great resource is https://www.etymonline.com

Explore the history and origin meanings of idioms.

    • “Beat around the bush” – talking about something in a roundabout way. From 1752 when wealthy noblemen didn’t want to go into bushes themselves to hunt, so servants were sent in to beat the bushes.
    • “Put all your eggs in one basket” – risking success by counting only on one thing or idea. A proverb from the 17th century – if you gather all your eggs in one basket and drop it,  you lose all your eggs.
    • A resource that includes short, engaging videos explaining the meaning, usage, and origin of idioms is https://www.idioms.online

Have a homograph competition in your house!

Homographs are words that look the same (HOMO means “same;” GRAPH means “write”) but sound different.  For instance: The wind made the tail of the kite wind around the tree branch. He has the high jump record they will record in the school yearbook. He moped around the house because Dad said he could not buy a moped. 

How many can you think of? Try thinking of the two pronunciations of these words:

    • bow
    • dove
    • rebel
    • refuse
    • sow

Homographs can also be words that are written and spoken the same, but have two different meanings.  I’m in a jam because I spilled strawberry jam on my white shirt. I will run to the store to buy pantyhose, I have a run in this pair.

Hunt for retronyms

At one time World War I was called the Great War. But, because we had a second war, the first one had to be “back” (RETRO) “named” (NYM). Thus…World War II caused the name of the Great War to change to World War I.  Cloth diapers came to “be” when we starting having disposable diapers. Railroad cars were simply “cars” until the arrival of automobiles. Look around and see if you can discover some retronyms.

I’ll share more ideas in future posts…but have fun with your student making discoveries about the English language.

Joyful learning: Creating learning experiences students will never forget

How do we engage students every day in every lesson? We want them attentive, inquisitive, and ready to participate. Yet, at times we seem to be challenged to provide exciting learning for many of our students. In my book Engaging Minds in English Language Arts Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy (2014; ASCD), I provide multiple ways for teachers to choose engaging over boring, out of the ordinary over hum-drum, and thought provoking over drill and kill. In future blogs I’ll share some of these lesson ideas…but recently I gave my book to a friend, Greg Levers. Greg is a retired California probation officer. After reading the book and thinking about the idea of “joy” in teaching and learning, Greg shared this story:


While delving in the first portion on your book, I couldn’t help but think of an experience I had as a piano student. I was an adult and this was not in a classroom setting but still, the “power of joy” has some bearing. My instructor, Russel Baldwin, was a professor of music, a world-class pianist and I was in several of his classes. He was the mentor for Jimmy Webb who wrote many popular songs including “My Beautiful Balloon” and “McArthur Park.”  Mr. Baldwin was a nice man but he could be very intimidating.

I needed “keyboard training” as my major was composition.

“Can I be great?” I asked.

“No, not starting at age 19. You are too social You won’t spend 10 hours a day in the practice room. But you can still be very good.”

So I would go to his home in Redlands every Saturday, very close to where we turned around by the mansion a few months ago and I would be unprepared. I was partying too much on Saturday night and uninterested in the bland assignments, the same material his five-year old students would play. He was clearly frustrated with me.

“Could I pick a piece of my choosing?” I asked.

He thought about that. “What piece?”

“I really love the sound of Fur Elise.”

Mr. Baldwin had a look on his face like there was a better chance of me flying with my arms than playing Fur Elise. But, perhaps because Beethoven was looking down and trying to convey, Let him try! he relented.

“This is probably a mistake but go ahead. See what you can do with it.”

He probably figured I couldn’t do any worse. I returned the next Saturday and while I hadn’t mastered the entire piece YET, many measures were perfected. He was obviously surprised and told me my entire piano assignment WAS NOW Fur Elise.

I eventually played the piece in a recital as one of his students. I couldn’t play much of anything else but I could play that composition.

The point being that, even as an adult, I did not become motivated without a challenge and the “power of joy.”


Now, I ask you…do you have story about feeling the joy in learning? What difference did it make in your life? Feel free to respond below with your own story or contact me at fresch.1@osu.edu!


Playing with poetry to develop phonemic awareness

This article has been extremely popular on Researchgate…so thought sharing it here might reach even more readers.  Co-authored with children’s author and poet, David L. Harrison, the article has reached over 3000 reads.  It speaks to making the skill of phonemic awareness (the ability to hear the sounds of a language) playful and engaging.

Have a look! https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275696575_Playing_With_Poetry_to_Develop_Phonemic_Awareness

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.

Power up writing in your balanced literacy classroom

Helping our students learn to write across the curriculum and across genres is a powerful way to provide lifelong skills. We want to give them confidence and the desire to write. Making the transformation from idea to composition can be intimidating to many students. So how can we make writing a fun learning experience?  Powerful teaching strategies are the answer!

First, any age student can sketch and label. This strategy asks students to sketch something memorable (their room at home, visiting a relative, going to a favorite park, a family gathering).  Ask them to draw the setting (note how this uses reading vocabulary) in as much detail as they can. Then ask them to label the picture with words and phrases (my overstuffed bookshelf, my pet guinea pig, orange blanket, tire swing in tree, etc.).  Ask them to study the picture…what story do they want to tell about it? Use the words and phrases to help get the writing rolling!

Second, have fun with genres by having buddies write about the same topic, different genre. For instance, a pair of students could be given the topic, “the Super Bowl.” Students then choose to write a short story using either nonfiction, fiction, or poetry. In the nonfiction story they could write what might be a real story (such as a news report) about a football game. In the fiction they might give a football player a super power such as jumping over many other players. In the poetry they might select meaningful words about the competition to express ideas and emotions about the game.  The pairs of students can compare how the same topic, but different genres, changes how it was written. Practice this approach with the whole class with a topic such as “my new shoes.” A shared writing lesson could demonstrate the different genres they might select when thinking about topics.

Third, persuade students that persuasive writing is all around us!  Search commercials for students at such sites as iSpot TV’s Kids’ commercials or Top five Super Bowl Ads with Kids . Choose some appropriate ones to show your students. Ask what the commercial writer used to persuade the viewer.  What language was used (they will want to think about the power of words in their own writing). This is a perfect place to double up on your literacy and content instruction. Ask students to choose an informational content book (picture or chapter book) and write a “commercial” to convince other students to read it.  You might even show a few movie trailers of age appropriate movies to demonstrate how we entice the viewer, but don’t give away the best part!

Finding ways to have fun with writing will engage even the most resistant student. Novel approaches, fun topics, peer support, and your excitement about writing will all help students become confident writers!


Getting beyond “googling it” – developing research skills

Research is an important first step to writing. Being ready to write means we have enough information and have carefully considered how to approach our topic. Moving beyond “Google it!” is critical to the development of robust research skills. From the idea in our head to the finished paper, there are seven important steps to get ready to write.

  1. All research begins with good topic selection. Researching a topic is always better when you have a personal interest. Teachers know if students have some say in what they write about (and thus need to research) they are better engaged and more likely to produce a quality piece of writing.
  2. Time to pose some questions. What do you want to know about your topic? At this point we can ask anything about our topic, our next step will help us narrow our questions.
  3. Use those questions to conduct a presearch.  A presearch is when we look to see if we have a viable topic to write about. If our topic is too big, we may be overwhelmed by the information available. If our topic is too narrow, we may be frustrated by too little information. This phase helps us refine our questions and maybe even ask some new ones.
  4. Our presearch and topic questions help us select key words.  These words will focus our search for information. No matter what resource we want to use (books, websites, finding experts to interview), key words make the search manageable. We are less likely to drift off our topic when we have strong key words.
  5. Time for some in-depth research. Using the key words to guide us, we begin our search. We might use any combination of books, websites, documentaries, or interviews to collect information. The more diverse our resources the more accurate our findings will be.
  6. While searching, taking effective notes is imperative once we finally begin to write. Our notes should include information about each resource so we can return if needed or appropriately cite.
  7. Finally, we need to organize our notes so we can prepare a sort of outline of the findings about our topic. These notes, effectively gathered and organized, make the transition to writing much easier.

These seven steps not only make our writing better, but also make it easier to begin. We have plenty of information, we know our topic is solid, and we have answered important questions. If you are a teacher, the goal is to help students become independent researchers. Anyone who writes, whether you are 8, 28, or 88, being an efficient and capable researcher is a lifelong skill.

Harrison, D.L. & Fresch, M.J. (2017).  7 Keys to Research for Writing Success. NY: Scholastic.

5 active ways to encourage vocabulary development

Research points to the importance of students knowing a wide range of words for success in reading.  Hart and Risley (2003) found significant, lasting differences in the home vocabularies of children of professionals versus children born into poverty. Additional studies show this vocabulary difference widens over time (Graves, et al., 2010). Looking for ways to close the gap is crucial for literacy development. We must consider ways to actively engage all students in learning new words. Here are 5 learning activities to increase student awareness:

  1. Shades of meaning – select words that have similar meanings, such as huge and large; asked and questioned. Pass the word cards out to students and have them find their buddy with a similar meaning. Ask them to create sentences using the word pair.
  2. Plus or minus endings – make word cards using words with –ing and –ed. Ask students to use scissors to cut the endings off. Does the base word need a letter (e) or does it have an extra letter (a double consonant)? Talk about the changes for adding endings. Search for more examples in the books they are reading.
  3. Determine number of syllables – create fun containers (such as pumpkins, boots, upside down umbrellas) and label with numbers for the syllables in the words you select (use science, social studies, and math words to double up on vocabulary development). Have students sort according to syllables.
  4. Pair the pears – on pear shape paper write homophones (tale/tail), shuffle, and pass out. Ask students to match the pairs, then to create a sentence that uses both words, showing correct usage.
  5. Hoop it up – draw two basketball hoops on a large surface. Choose two sounds for students to compare (long a/short a; hard g/soft g). On basketball shape paper write words that fit the sound patterns (bake/bag; goat/giant). Ask students to place the basketball under the correct hoop.

These are just a few ideas to get your started on active, hands-on vocabulary learning!


Graves, M. F., Juel, C., Graves, B. B., & Dewitz, P. (2010). Teaching reading in the 21st century: Motivating all learners. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, 27(1), 4–9.

Balanced literacy: Teaching each student’s instructional need

Every day a teacher has the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s reading and writing life.  What other career can have such an impact on a student’s life? Teachers know students come to them with varying mastery of skills…varying depths of knowledge about vocabulary and content…and varying willingness to risk new learning. How do we meet individual needs, keep students engaged, and develop a sense of community?  Balanced literacy seeks to meet students where the greatest need exists. Some students may need additional practice reading to develop fluency and improve comprehension. Some students may need experiences in doing quality research to inform an upcoming writing task. And others may need to deepen their knowledge of English and the many words that will assist them in reading content texts.

Teachers want students to have fun and to maintain (or improve) their self-concept. But, allowing students to slide along and not be challenged to develop reading and writing skills does them no favor. In fact, it makes the teaching (and learning) task much harder. So, how do we stop the slide? We begin with formative assessments – those quick check-ups on how a student is using his or her literacy skills.  The word “assess” means to “sit beside” and these type of assessments do just that…allow us to sit beside our students and see them use their skills “on the run.”  How do they decode unknown words? How much prior knowledge do they bring to a reading text? What do they know of constructing their own written texts? How can we stretch, but not frustrate a student to guide them into new learning? We want students to feel the joy of learning and accomplishment. Targeting individual needs is key to building success. Success that lasts a life time.

Vocabulary development: Storytelling word histories

(Presentation from National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference, 2013)


Storytelling has a long history as a way to pass knowledge to the next generation. For instance, the first fairy tales were oral cautionary stories about taking care when going into the woods alone, not trusting a stranger, or eating a suspicious apple. Generation after generation passed these stories along, committing to memory the pertinent facts and attached emotions. Indeed, “story” and “history” have common roots – both deriving from the Greek and Latin for accounts of factual events.  In time, “story” concentrated more on fictional accounts, “history” with actual events of the past.

Bruner (2002) claimed storytelling is universal and a “dominant form of discourse” (Atta-Alla, 2012).  Studies have shown that storytelling enhances language skills (Egan, 2005) and develops vocabulary and syntax (Strickland and Morrow 1989). “Storytelling is a tool that can be used in any form of [the] language development curriculum” and has particular potential in urban settings (Ali, 2008, p. 70). “Those who have observed children listening to an absorbing story have often been impressed with the quality and persistence of their attention, surely an important ingredient in any learning context” (Elley, 1989, p. 176). Storytelling can take vocabulary learning out of the memorization model and into “making memories” about words. Dewey reminded teachers not to simply “give” information to their students. Otherwise, “the information was likely to be committed to memory in a rather lifeless or mechanical way. He called this ‘static, cold-storage’ knowledge” (as cited in Phillips & Soltis, 1998, p. 39). Students are not “passive recipients of information about new words” (Wilkinson & Houston-Price, 2013, p. 592). Indeed, “teachers discovered that children could easily recall whatever historical or scientific facts they learned through story” (NCTE, 1992, unpaged).

Considering the size of the English language, memorization is not the only way to learn new words. Having students be actively engaged in encounters with words makes the learning memorable.

So where does the storytelling begin?  Try word histories. Whet their appetite with interesting stories (see end of handout – Great stories to tell). Once they get interested in these, have students research words as related to your curricular needs (content area studies, vocabulary development) or their interests.  There are many ways to engage even the most reluctant learner when he or she discovers the secrets behind English words.  Try the following suggestions to take the word stories into captivating and memorable activities.

Mystery guest – who am I?

This activity is played like the old party game of taping a name to each person’s back and they must ask questions to discover whom they are.  Choose words that the class has been using in a content area – the students’ questions should lead them to  the word. (You may want to do an example so students understand the type of questions to ask.)

You complete me

 A word, its origin, definition can be combined in a number of ways for a partner hunt. For example, make sets of cards using:

(1) book

(2) Germanic boks related to boka meaning “beech” – the wood used for writing tablets.

(3) a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

Mix the pairs (or trios). Students find “buddy” or “buddies” by matching a pair (Word/origin; word/definition) or trio. Or, use the cards as a “memory” matching game – 2 card matches or challenge advanced students with 3 card matches. 

It’s all about me (Eponyms)

Have students investigate these words named after people.

Frisbee (Frisbie Pie Company) Leotard (Jules Leotard)
Ferris Wheel (Washington Ferris) Sideburns (Gen. Ambrose Burnside)
Silhouette (Étienne de Silhouette) Mattel (Harold Matson & Eliot Handler)
Sandwich (Earl of Sandwich) Graham Cracker (Rev. Sylvester Graham)
Dunce (John Duns Scotus) Doberman Pinscher (Ludwig Doberman)

Link to content studies

 Many words in the content areas can provide interesting stories to make words memorable. Tell these stories or have students investigate and share with the class.

History/Civil war = deadline (prison in the field)

Math = zero (empty), twelve (two left over after counting to ten)

Inventions = zipper (B.F. Goodrich’s “Zip ‘er up!” galoshes)

Human body = south paws (baseball stadiums)

Social Studies/Mapping = Antarctica (no bears)

Economics = corny jokes (Seed catalogs); dollar (Jachymov stalers); Salary (salt)

Language Arts = sincerely (without wax); plagiarism (kidnapper)

School Community = secretary (secrets); janitor (Janus, God of gates/doors); teacher (one who “shows”); student (to be eager, diligent); school (leisure)

A rose by any other name

Encourage students to find words that are more descriptive than those of Germanic (colloquial) origin by suggesting synonyms of French (literary) or Latin (learned) origin.  Discuss how each synonym set differs. For instance:

Germanic French Latin
rise mount ascend
kingly royal regal
ask question interrogate
holy sacred consecrated
sweat perspire exude
deer venison
need require mandatory
forgive pardon amnesty

Unabridged fun

Unabridged dictionaries include etymologies before the definition. These provide the connection to the history of the word and its current use.
Some great origins to storytell

comet Ancient Greek: “kometes” – “having long hair.” Aristotle first used “kometes” to describe the heavenly body that seems to have long hair trailing from its “head.” The name was later adopted into Latin as “cometes,” which eventually made its way to English.
palindrome Greek dromos, for “running” (also origin of the speedy desert runner, dromedary). palin means “again.”



French grue for “crane”; Old French – “crane’s foot” – referred to as a pie de grue. Seeing a genealogical chart with its three-line diagrams indicating who + who begat whom, and it is evident why speakers of Old French called this figure /|\  pie de grue.



Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, “milk and sugar” – reference to the smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that make it resemble thin lines of sugar.
funny bone This spot, that gets a “tingly” feeling when bumped, is at the enlarged end of the “humerus” bone.
globe Old French “globe” or the Latin “globus” meaning to roll together or stick. Maps were only flat at one time, and thus rolled together.




A made-up word by English author/historian Horace Walpole. In 1754, he wrote a letter claiming he’d coined this word, based on a Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip.” He said the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'” Serendip, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.
tulip From the resemblance to a type of headwear – the turban. In the 1500s, Austria’s ambassador visited Turkey and was enchanted by the unusual flowers. The Turks’ traditional name for the flower was lale, but the ambassador’s interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for “turban,” because of its shape. When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which slightly changed in English.
basketball Invented by Dr. James Naismith. A Canadian, Naismith was teaching physical education at International Young Men’s Christian Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891. He needed an activity to keep the young men busy during the winter months. He cut the bottoms out of peach baskets, challenged the students to move a ball down the gym floor and throw it through the basket.
candidate Latin “candidatus” meaning person dressed in white. Early Roman politicians wanted white togas to make a good impression.


Bell ringing was quite an art during the Middle Ages. But, just like any instrument that is being learned, novice “ringers” practice for hours and not all of it sounded good!  So, a craftsman (whose name we do not know) invented “dumb or silent bells” which were weighted ropes that did not make noise.  The weights of the ropes varied, just as the weights of bells did, so novices got stronger practicing on these.
earmark From Old English herdsmen needing a way to mark their cattle (branding was not yet used).  The herdsmen notched the ears of cattle to signify which was theirs when using common pastureland for grazing.
hurricane Taino “huraca’n” meaning center of the wind. Christopher Columbus brought this word back, making its way to Spanish, and eventually English.
jeep Abbreviation for the all-purpose vehicle developed for the military. The “General Purpose” vehicle became nicknamed g.p. which was shortened into a pronounceable word.
piggy bank


In the 1400’s, household pots and dishes were made of cheap clay called “pygg”. Housewives would store extra coins in the “pyggy jars”. They became known as “pygg banks”.
canoe From the Haitian, brought by Columbus, “kanoa” meaning dugout or hollow log. When Columbus returned to Spain, the spelling changed.
starboard Old English steorbor”, “steor” meaning rudder or the steering oar, “bor” meaning a side. In the early ships, the steering mechanism was on the right hand side of the ship.
typhoon Chinese “tai fung” – big wind.
window When Norse carpenters built homes, they left a hole or eye in the roof to allow smoke to escape. Wind often blew through this hole and it became known as “vindr auga” meaning wind eye.
lunatic From the Roman moon goddess, Luna, who supposedly caused people to go mad during the changing phases of the moon.
galore Irish Gaelic go leor meaning “enough or plenty”.
caravan Persian – from karwan meaning “company of travelers”

Suggested Resources for Word Stories

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

Ayto, J. (1990). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Arcade.

Barber, K. (2006). Six words you never knew had something to do with pigs. New York: Penguin.

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

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

Bryson, B. (1994). Made in America: An informal history of the English language in the United States. New York: Harper.

Crystal, D. (2006). Words, words, words. London: Oxford University Press.

Essinger, J. (2006). Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English language. NY: Bantam.

Flavel, L & R.  (1992). Dictionary of Idioms. London: Kyle Cathie Ltd.

Fresch, M.J. (2007). Word study: Ways to captivate reluctant learners. AdLIT. http://ohiorc.org/adlit/inperspective/issue/2007-03/Article/vignette.aspx

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

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

Hendrickson, R. (2004). Word and phrase origins (3rd Ed.). New York: Checkmark Books.

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

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

Liberman, A. (2005). Word origins…and how we know them. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Suid, M. (2007). Words of a feather: A humorous puzzlement of etymological pairs. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Todd, R. W. (2007). Much ado about English. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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

Wulffson, D. & Wulffson, P. (2003). Abracadabra to Zombie: More than 300 wacky word origins. Illustrated by Jared Lee. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.











Ali, M.M. (2008). Storytelling: A boon to children’s language development. Journal of Urban Education, 5 (1), 68-73.

Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elley, W. B. (1989). Vocabulary Acquistion from Listening to Stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, (2), 174-187.

Jackson, H. & Zé Amvela, E. (2000). Words, Meaning And Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology. London: Continuum.

National Council of Teachers of English. (1992).Guideline on teaching storytelling. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Nazir Atta-Alla, M. (2012). Integrating Language Skills through Storytelling. English Language Teaching, 5(12), 1-13.

Phillips, D. C. & Soltis, J.F. (1998). Perspectives on learning (3rd Ed.). NY: Teachers College Press.

Strickland, D.S. & Morrow, L.M. (1989). Oral language development: Children as storytellers. The Reading Teacher, 43(3), 260-261.

Wilkinson, K.S. & Houston-Price, C. (2013). Once upon a time, there was a pulchritudinous princess . . . : The role of word definitions and multiple story contexts in children’s learning of difficult vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34 (4), 591-613.