Unlocking The Power Of Words: Exploring Morphology, Etymology, and Cognitive Strategies for Effective Vocabulary Instruction

By David Voisin

Students are taught to analyse texts, deconstruct sentences, and decipher meanings, but how often do they explore the architecture of words?

For over two millennia, the atom was considered the smallest building block of life until scientists discovered the electron, nucleus, and elementary particles. While we’ve made progress in understanding the physical world, many people still perceive words as the ultimate frontier in language. Students are taught to analyse texts, deconstruct sentences, and decipher meanings, but how often do they explore the architecture of words?

A huge emphasis has been placed on explicit vocabulary instruction in the past few years. It plays a significant part in the 2019 Ofsted framework and the Education Endowment Foundation released a Literacy Guidance Report which highlights what constitutes good practice. People familiar with these documents will have noticed the conspicuous emergence of two new terms in the vocabulary toolkit: Morphology” and Etymology”.

Morphology (of which Etymological roots are a subset), is a branch of grammar. As such, it suffers from the same stigmatisation which has prevailed in British education for decades. But grammar is not about rules and prescription (although there are conventions), it is about meaning and construction. It is not about trying to resuscitate moribund languages but about understanding modern ones.


MFL teachers are experts at learning and teaching vocabulary because polyglots are constantly exploring the similarities between words across languages. It is about building from what we already know.

It is possible to understand and memorise new words the same way we generate ideas: through associations, and this is where morphology can be extremely useful. Foreign languages are great for discovering patterns. For instance, to wait in Spanish is Esperar. Espérer in French means to hope. Hoping is indeed akin to waiting. Waiting in French is attendre. What do waiters do? They attend to tables! If you like this type of word dominoes, The book The Etymologicon” from Mark Forsyth is a great read.

On a lexical level, however, many of our learners are ill-equipped to recognise patterns. I had to explain to some KS4 students that the words imitate” (which they knew) and inimitable” (which most did not recognise) were connected. The same with stellar” and constellation”. This is problematic because what matters is not so much how many new words students acquire but how they get to recognise and memorise them.

To understand how we learn new vocabulary, I believe that we need to look at the basics of cognitive science. Cognitive Load Theory is sometimes reduced to the simplistic notion that only a limited amount of information can be processed at once. This is true, but there is a lot more to it. The idea that working memory and long-term memory are two separate blocks may not be entirely helpful because the most interesting aspect of learning is not the transfer from one to the next, but the constant exchange between the two.

Words are not indivisible entities. They can be broken down and linked to other words, either morphologically (in their form) or semantically (through meaning). Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. The huge advantage this presents is that it allows learners to connect new words to words they already know, a bit like a mental Velcro”, to borrow E.D. Hirschs analogy. It also enables them to understand how these words can relate to others and how they can be modified to generate new meanings or functions within a sentence.

Morphology does not replace reading for vocabulary acquisition but rather complements it, allowing students to be more independent and providing additional clues about meaning when context alone does not suffice. In their book Bringing Words to Life”, Beck, McKeown and Kucan explain that only certain types of context (directive and occasionally general) are conducive to meaning. For instance, pupils may use context to decipher the meaning of the word philanthropist” in the sentence He is a lavish philanthropist, donating generous amounts of his own personal fortune to charities or other noble causes”.

However, students would be none the wiser if they came across the related words anthropology”, anthropophagous” “anthropomorphic”, anthropocentric”, misanthropy” and this is only half of the etymological roots of philanthropy”. Context alone is not enough. Every classroom teacher should use affixes (prefixes and suffixes) as well as etymological roots to help students recognise, memorise, analyse and construct words.

The other advantage is that etymological roots are distributed over all three Word Tiers, linking easy words to more academic ones (for instance quad”, quadriceps” and quadruped”). Etymology is a fantastic tool for learning and understanding. Pupils find it fascinating.

This linguistic reverse-engineering is not just helpful for meaning but also for spelling. For instance, have you ever noticed that the root pter” at the beginning of pterodactyl” is also present in helicopter” (pter” meaning wing”)? As for dactyl”, it means finger and it is featured in dactylography”. 90% of polysyllabic words in English come from Latin or Greek.

So, should we teach our students hundreds of Greek and Latin roots? No, not at all. What we must do is incite them to be observant and teach them to make connections. We need to have a forensic approach to language.

The chunking down of words for memorisation is the best way to reduce cognitive load; we do it every time we try to memorise a phone number (three sets of three digits is easier to remember than nine individual numbers). For example, the spelling of Wednesday is easier to remember for students once they break it down into Wed-nes-day. The process of chunkingis at the core of the morphological approach.

Another crucial function of morphology is to navigatewords along a grammatical spectrum. For instance, the adjective clearcan be turned into an adverb (clearly), a noun (clarity) or a verb (to clarify).

Pattern identification does not always necessitate a lexical decoupage though. Orthographic associations (via spellings) can be very helpful too. Surprisingly, there are many words in English which are separated by just one letter. Here are a few, just to illustrate: Insidious / invidious, plumber / plunder, insolent / indolent… Because words are best remembered when they are used, it could be judicious to encourage students to come up with their own mnemonics (Mnemosyne is the Goddess of memory in Greek Mythology).


As Daniel T.Willigham points out, people remember words much better when they are articulated within a narrative. We are not just pattern seeking animals, we are also natural storytellers. Anthropologists explain that good raconteurs were endowed with a greater chance to reproduce. We ascribe narratives to our lives to give them meaning and purpose but we also use stories to memorise things better. Teachers should never neglect anecdotes when planning lessons. These are the best way to catch pupilsattention, make new information stick and illustrate the patternicity of words.


So, we must use patterns and stories to teach vocabulary. But there is a third element. As we have seen, words are not independent entities. They may be linked to other words (synonyms, antonyms, words of similar spellings or semantic fields) but also narratives, emotions. In the brain, words are not in a single location. Conceptually, words are more of a network distributed over several cognitive areas.

At the heart of the word imagine” lies the word image”. Like other diurnal animals, we have a vast visual cortex. A recent arrival on the scale of human evolution, the circuitry of language (and even more recently, reading) had to bolt itself onto pre-existing systems which had helped us thus far navigate the world visually and spatially.

Einstein allegedly claimed to do most of his thinking visually rather than verbally. The English language is replete with abstract visual representations. Metaphors and idiomatic expressions are not simply aesthetic or stylistic tools for language, they bear witness to our fantastic ability to conceptualise abstract thought.

In her book Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thoughts”, Stanford University professor Barbara Tversky argues that our senses of space and motion underlie our capacity for thought. She explains that educators and parents should not underestimate the didactic power of comic strips a in verbal development. I once read that Martin Amis read nothing but comics as a child until he discovered Jane Austen.

A useful tool in the panoply of teaching strategies is dual-coding, which is predicated on the idea that information is better encoded in the brain when it stems from two types of stimuli. Thus, using images as well as text to support word acquisition is a very efficient strategy. Introduce the word irascible” in a directive context, along with a picture of Scrooge from Disneys animated version of A Christmas Carol” and pupils are more likely to remember it.

Language is about communicating with others. On a cognitive level, language is also about communication: communication between the hippocampus and the visual cortex (episodic memory), or with the prefrontal lobes (semantic memory); communication between the left and the right hemisphere.

To conquer language teaching, we need to have, at the very least, an understanding of how language acquisition and development works. It is not about blindly adhering to educational fads; it is about embracing science and evidence to deliver what is best for our students.


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