Teaching prefixes and suffixes to improve word analysis

Teaching students the meaning of Greek and Latin affixes can help them “decode” unfamiliar words. If they can separate a prefix and/or suffix as they attempt to work across a new word, they may be able to independently construct the meaning. For instance, the student sees reattachment and they know re means again and ment means an action, then they are left with attach…so reattachment means the act of attaching again. While reattachment might look intimidating, being able to separate the prefix and suffix leaves a decodable and understandable word – attach. Baumann, Font, Tereshinski, Kame’enui, and Olejnik (2002) found teaching morphemic analysis not only helped students learn about the words studied, but they were able to apply that knowledge to new words. So, which affixes should we spend time on with our students? White, Sowell, and Yanagihara (1999) suggest beginning with the top 20 prefixes and top 20 suffixes (and their variant spellings such as in/im/ir/il-).

The top 20 prefixes: un-, re-, in/im/ir/il-, dis-, en/em-, non-, in/in-, over-, mis-, sub-, pre-, inter-, fore-, de-, trans-, super-, semi-, anti-, mid-, under-

The top 20 suffixes: -s/es, – ed, -ing, -ly, -er/or, – ion/tion/ation/ition, -ible/-able, -al/ial, -y, -ness, -ity/ty, -ment, -ic, -ous/eous/ious, -en, – er, -ive/ative/itive, -ful, -less, -est

A useful starting activity is to show students a word such as unable. Ask students what part of the word is the prefix (un-) and what it means (not).  Therefore, unable means (not able). Cut the prefix from the word. Show how it was added to the base word (able).  Ask students what other words they know that have this prefix. Make a list on chart paper. Distribute note cards or slips of paper to students. Ask them to write a word from the list on the note card.  Tell them to cut the prefix off, glue the two parts to a sheet of paper, and write the meaning of each part. Have students share their words. Repeat the activity with the word careless (-less meaning lack of). Begin a chart on the wall where students write words they come across in their reading that have a prefix and/or suffix. Ask them to also provide the word’s meaning. This chart can be a handy reference when they are reading and writing independently.

You can differentiate this activity by the words you choose. Fresch and Wheaton (2004) utilized research based word lists to organize words by spelling feature and grade level. For instance, for re (meaning back or again) they suggest words such as react, redo and refill for grades 2/3; rebound, restore, and rediscover for grades 3/4; and reinvest,  rearrange, and reproduce for grades 4/5/6. Glossaries in the content books you are using can be a useful resource for finding words. Students needing more support are given words they can more easily decode, students who are up for the challenge can be given words that have both a prefix and suffix (such as semitropical). As well, students can be challenged to find words with affixes in their independent reading materials. While they are searching in books they can comfortably read, they are focusing in on a specific type of word. This is a quick formative assessment as well as you observe which students are tuned into affixes as they interact with various kinds of print.

These activities are undeniably informative and fun!


Baumann, J., Font, G., Tereshinski, C.A., Kame’enui, E.J., and Olejnik, S. (2002) Teaching morphemic and contextual analysis to fifth-grade students. The Reading Teaching, 52 (3), 222-242.

Fresch, M.J. and Wheaton, A. F. (2004). The Spelling List and Word Study Resource Book. https://amzn.to/3dPkjKK

White, T.G., Sowell, J., and Yanagihara, A. (1999). Teaching elementary students to use word-part clues. The Reading Teaching, 42 (2), 302-308.

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.

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!


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.

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.