Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mindful Zen of Morphology, revisited

We strolled the San Francisco wharf, stopping at the National Historic Park Maritime Museum and checking out the ships on the Hyde Street Pier. Near Aquatic Park we approached this refreshingly pungent tree.

Click the tree image. It will grow.


According to the Common Core State Standards, children in kindergarten and first grade must learn how common inflectional suffixes like -s, -ed, -ing, -er and -est create various forms of the same word, as with grow, grows, growing, and big, bigger, biggest.

But inflections are only the beginning. The inflectional suffix -er in greener and brighter is not the same as the derivational suffix -er in painter and preacher. (See The Slippery Suffix -er.)

By third grade, students need to be working with derived words, particularly those countless English words formed by adding a derivational suffix. (Read about suffixes.)


Finding a semantic overlap  between tree and treelet is a matter of morphological problem solving (Anglin, 1993). This involves knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, and a readiness to seek similarities in form and meaning across words. It also involves analogy: "I know what  a piglet is, so I can guess what a treelet is." The ability to problem solve via analogies or morphemes is facilitated by knowledge of similar words: booklet, owlet, piglet, eaglet, and applet, a small computer application.

Eventually, if students are shown how to explore morphological connections and taught common prefixes and suffixes, they become more apt to seek that satisfying "ah-ha" moment, when word meanings click into place. It's often quite rewarding, like the snap of a puzzle piece. This moment is more likely to happen when students are reading, rather than listening.


Photographed at San Francisco National Maritime Museum
Along our walk we visited this fabulous -- and free -- museum. Of course, I began to wonder about these two words, given their close proximity on the display. My first thought was that the root brig might mean "ship"...

...but in addition to brig and brigantine, we have brigadier and brigade. Are they all part of the same family of words? (So then I thought the root meant either "ship" or 'to fight').

Asking the question is important. Coming up with an answer is secondary to asking the question. Are students asking the question? Are teachers modeling this habit of thought?


In kindergarten, analyze words like big, bigger, and biggest (inflections).
Also analyze tip, tipping, and tipped (inflections).

By first grade, birdhouse, doghouse, and -- not quite the same pattern -- tree house (These are compound words, but notice a tree does not live in a tree house, unlike the birdhouse and doghouse examples. Also, a tree house is an open compound, rather than closed.)

Explore how meanings change in words derived from a known base: pig-piglet, owl-owlet, and tree-treelet.

Into middle school and beyond, address more complex derivations: brig, brigantine, brigand, brigadier, brigandage, etc. The word brig is perhaps a clip, a shortened form of brigantine. However, brig has developed a unique meaning over the years. By the way, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, the root does mean "to fight" (Middle English via Italian).

According to seminal research by Jeremy Anglin (1993), inferring word meaning via morphological reasoning predicts vocabulary growth. Anglin tested children in grades 1, 3, and 5, finding a sharp increase in word knowledge between grades 3 and 5. He suggested that this steep increase is largely due to increased awareness of the process of suffixation, in particular, the process of creating new words by adding derivational suffixes. Those students who were more skilled in this type of "morphological problem solving" performed comparatively better on the vocabulary test.

While root words (words that have no prefix or suffix attached, like shoe, rope, tree) accounted for the most words known by the average first grade student, derived words accounted for the most words known by a typical fifth grader.

The chart is from Anglin's monograph. His test included treelet, among other words. I added some color and the other forms of tree as examples only, providing an instance of each of the five types of words he included in the test: root words, inflected words, derived words, literal compounds, idioms.

In the years since Anglin's monograph, the relationship between linguistic insight and literacy has become a fairly hot topic in research circles. Not surprisingly, Berninger et al. (2010) found a similar linear relationship between vocabulary knowledge and morphological insight, in large part confirming Anglin's findings.

Promising research by Bauman et al. (2007) suggests that vocabulary increases as a result of a combined instructional focus that includes four components: 1) creating a language-rich learning environment, 2) providing explicit word instruction, 3) teaching word-learning strategies (including inferring meaning via morphological problem solving), and 4) fostering word consciousness. This line of inquiry is based on theories advanced by Graves (2006).  See the MCVIP post, where a large team of researchers describe even newer findings.

The more our vocabulary grows, the more we are able to make connections when practicing The Mindful Zen of Morphology. The more we make connections, the more our vocabulary grows.


Anglin, J.M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(10), v-165. 

Baumann, J.F., Ware, D., & Edwards, E.C. (2007). “Bumping into spicy, tasty words that catch your tongue:” A formative experiment on vocabulary instruction. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 108-122.

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39(2), 141-163.

Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Nagy, W.E. (2007). Metalinguistic awareness and the vocabulary-comprehension connection. In R.K. Wagner, A.E Muse, & K.R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 52-77). New York: Guilford Press. 

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Sequestration" and the Complexity of Word Knowledge

Sequestration is upon us. Specific budget cuts will be announced, and for each nonexempt federal program, this will be carried out by some kind of Edward Sequester Hands. The incisions will be felt most by the unemployed and the furloughed, and I expect they won't be happy about it. In fact, the tune might go something like this:
It's sequestered we are, and sequestered we stay,
Till the debt is defrayed with the taxes we pay.
But we know it will take till the Reckoning Day.
The future's furloughed till the Reckoning Day.
The devil to pay till the Reckoning Day!

The sequester. Will it work? Hope so, but only time will tell. One positive outcome is already certain: Americans have been expanding their vocabulary. According to Google Trends constrained to the USA, interested folks have been "googling" definitions of sequestration and sequester, as the chart below shows (100 is peak search volume).

So, the nation is learning this word. However, in "Letting Sequester Fester" -- published in Word Routes  only 12 days ago -- linguist Ben Zimmer is a tad cautious:
"A bigger problem is that most people still don't know what sequester means; as Time's Katy Steinmetz noted, a poll in The Hill indicated that 25 percent of voters said that they didn't know what sequester referred to, while almost 40 percent guessed the wrong answer." (See poll results).
Ben's concern is well founded, at least in my case. Who knew sequestration had anything to do with spending? I did not, until recently. Prior to 2012,  the main context I had for sequester derived from movies like Runaway Jury and high profile court cases, where jurors are sequestered in hotel rooms lest they become tainted, bribed, biased.

In addition to the courtroom context, I may have happened upon sequester in a few other places. In the sports column for the Seattle Times:

"Outside of Daytona, teams are rarely sequestered at one track for five days"

In literature I may have run across Phillpotts (1920):

"Time rings his rounds and forgets not this sequestered hollow."

That's a beautiful line, and even memorable, but still I did not associate sequester with the economy. So how did I learn about fiscal sequestration? The same way we learn many words -- from a variety of context, supported by an accessible definition. Yes, I am among the "googlers" mentioned above. Now I know this other meaning of sequestration. I also know sequester, used as a verb, to sequester, and also as a noun, the sequester (the verb was only recently converted into a noun, through a process described in a prior post).

So what?


My own processing -- or learning -- of this word rather neatly flows with the five aspects of word complexity discussed in a chapter by vocabulary experts William Nagy and Judith Scott (2000). The five aspects that describe the complexity of word knowledge often overlap. All five aspects may not apply to every word.  According to the scholars, educators need to consider the following when teaching any given word:

1) Incrementality: As I have personally experienced with sequester, we do not immediately gain full understanding of a word meaning, but instead, we gradually and incrementally refine our knowledge, through various encounters with the concept, in varied context. As long as I only encountered sequester in the context of a jury, my grasp was limited. Teaching implications: Revisit words over time, in varied genres, applications, and uses. Provide for distributed practice. Avoid "vocabulary cramming" for a test.

2) Polysemy: Many words have more than one meaning, as we have seen with sequester. The most commonly used meaning is the one we are most likely to know. Teaching implications: Help students attend to context to grasp meaning. Explicitly teach multiple meanings. Teach dictionary use. Teach the metalinguistic notion that word meanings are flexible, and apt to change.

3. Multidimensionality: Words are learned along various dimensions. These dimensions may overlap.  Teaching implications: Help students pronounce the word, read it, spell it, use it correctly in terms of grammar and syntax.  Teach the conceptual meaning and its associations with other words, including morphological relationships, discussed below. Help students attend to collocations -- the words the target word "hangs out" with, including the little-noticed words: "in" sequestration, for one example. Discuss style and register. Sequestration is more formal than budget cuts and likely to be used in academic discourse. To develop a formal register within a discipline, try some of the "Accountable Talk" strategies discussed by Dr. Zygouris-Coe in a prior post.

Visual Thesaurus
4. Interrelatedness: Knowing one meaning actually implies that we know other related meanings. That should be more than evident with sequestration.  Teaching implications: Students are unlikely to understand budget sequestration unless they already understand the simple concepts of save and keep, and more abstract concepts, like reduce, withhold, percentage, budget, etc. Build on prior learning, and convey word relationships (synonyms, antonyms, derivations, conceptual or thematic clusters, etc.). Help students learn to use a dictionary and thesaurus, to further deepen their understanding.

5. Heterogenity: Words vary in complexity, and so do word learners. The content word sequestration is more complex than the content term budget cuts, and far more complex than the function word within. Teaching implications: Provide differentiated instruction, depending on the word, and depending on the learner.


Learning about how words are formed with roots and affixes is part of developing metalinguistic insight, and as such, it promotes both vocabulary and comprehension. Because vocabulary growth hinges on an understanding of word structure, Nagy and Scott (2000) claim the following, in the same chapter discussed above:

 "It is hard to overstate the importance of morphology in vocabulary growth" (p. 275)

With sequester, older students could explore the family of words that flow from the Latin root, which means something like, 'to place in safe keeping' (see Robertson).  Partners could discuss the semantic overlap across these morphologically related words and analyze the word structure to see how the different suffixes and prefixes, smacked onto the root, modify the meaning and/or grammatical word class (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb).
sequester     sequestration     sequestrator     sequestrate     sequestral   
sequestrant     sequestrable      unsequestrable     unsequestered 

Sequestrate words in isolated study lists? Not sound practice. Provide some context and a student-friendly definition. Explore morphological families of words.

Work together with a peer, practicing how to pronounce difficult words. Like sequestration. Now that's a tricky one. A tongue twister. Gain confidence and competence. Then use the word in formal, academic discourse.

I've been sequestered in my office long enough. Best wishes, until next time.

Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research: Volume II (pp. 269–284). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Getting "In" to Prefixes

Greetings! This month, I wrote a guest post titled Getting "in" to Prefixes for Visual Thesaurus/  If interested, see link below.

But first, stay a while and browse. Scroll down for a few posts, dig into the archives (see links above), read an entry from a guest author (see links in sidebar), or explore the dozens of websites listed at the bottom of the page.

Getting "in" to Prefixes may seem familiar, because I have expanded upon an older post. The extended article includes a discussion of academic words beginning with the prefix in-, (e.g., inflammable, incandescent, and invaluable), an interactive sorting activity (download the page and freely distribute), and pertinent Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Selecting Candidates, Electing Officials, and Collecting Votes -- From Every Dialect

Greetings! Tuesday is Election Day, so it seems appropriate to explore the inner workings of the words elect, election and president.  I also pay my respects to some wonderful children's books that focus on elections, voting, etc.

Also, Jan and Carey Cook at My Vocabulary have published word games, puzzles, and brief readings for Election Day. Thanks to Jan for sharing this info with us!

The Morphological Composition of Elect

Prior posts and various guest authors have discussed the value of teaching students to pay attention to word structure, including addressing morphology and etymology standards. I won't say more today, but for a summary of some of the research, see Vocabulogic's Morphology Page.

The word elect contains two morphemes, e- ('out') + lect ('to select, to pick'). Both morphemes can be traced back to Latin -- the language of the Romans. (They supposedly trace even further back, to the hypothetical "Mother Tongue" composed of Indo-European roots.)

The Latin Prefix e- : "Out, Outward, Upward"
We see the prefix e- in evaporate e-  +  vapor  +  ate  >>  evaporate. (I parse it thus so students recognize the tight relationship between vapor and e-vapor-ate.) The prefix e- denotes 'out, outward, upward.'  Thus, morphologically speaking, evaporate might be interpreted as "outward and upward vapor" (with a verb-forming suffix -ate)We see this same prefix e- in elect, erupt, edict, enormous, erase, and escape. The prefix e- is a form of the prefix ex- as in express, export, exhale, exclaim, extend, expel, excavate. Read more about this common prefix -- every student should know it before they enter middle school -- at

The Latin Root Lect (Leg): "Choose, Gather, Pick, Choose Words"

This root takes on a slightly different nuance in each word, but the meaning has something to do with 'choosing, gathering, picking out'  or 'reading, reciting, gathering or selecting words.'  This morphological family includes elect, electoral, election, elective, select, selection, selectively, collect, collection, dialect, lecture, lectern, eclectic, and more. However, contrary to my expectations, delectable is NOT part of this family. Oddly enough, it is related to delight, but has undergone some transformations over the centuries, according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

MCVIP – A Multi-Faceted, Comprehensive Vocabulary Instruction Program (Baumann, Manyak, Blachowicz, Graves, Arner, Bates, Cieply, Davis, Peterson, & Olejnik)

This post is courtesy of the MCVIP vocabulary research team, which includes primary investigators Jim Baumann (University of Missouri-Columbia), Patrick Manyak (University of Wyoming), and Camille Blachowicz (National Louis University). Mike Graves (University of Minnesota, Emeritus) has been a consultant on the project, and it has been his research and writing that have formed the basis for the MCVIP instructional framework (see Mike's prior post. Also see his newest book, Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners by Graves, August, and Mancilla-Martinez). Other persons whose work is represented in this post and who have been instrumental in both developing MCVIP and conducting the research on it are Steven Olejnik (University of Georgia, Emeritus), Jeni Davis (University of South Florida), Justin Arner (Hillsborough Co., FL, Schools), Heather Peterson (Wyoming), and Char Cieply and Ann Bates (National Louis). Most importantly, we wish to acknowledge the teacher-participants, co-researchers, and professional friends whose expertise, enthusiasm, and insight made this project possible. Thanks to David Autenrieth, Julie O'Farrell, Carolyn Gillis, Elizabeth McDermott, Dianne Williams (Wyoming); Marie Chang-Pisano, Carol Clay, Kelly De Rosa, Tom Erf, Vanessa Herrera, Colleen Kelly, Julia Starenko (National Louis); Elizabeth Quintero, Brent Wade, Jill Walters, Heidi Watson (Missouri). A recent publication in which the researchers have contributed one or more chapters on or related to MCVIP is Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed., Kame’enui & Baumann, 2012). The research team also has a web site under construction, on which detailed information and lessons from MCVIP will be available upon its completion.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Click any graphic to enlarge it. Right-click to save it. This post elaborates on a prior post:  The Four-Ply Vocabulary Plan.
Four Components of MCVIP
MCVIP is a research and development project funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. MCVIP is based on Graves’s (2006, 2009) four-component vocabulary program, which includes “(1) providing rich and varied language experiences; (2) teaching individual words; (3) teaching word-learning strategies; and (4) fostering word consciousness” (2006, p. 5). Working from these four components, we have developed and evaluated the implementation of MCVIP in multiple Grade 4 and 5 classrooms in three states.