Sunday, January 31, 2010

English: A Large Language (video)

English is not only a complex sound-spelling system, posing a potential challenge for learning to read (Seymour, 2007), it is also a large language, rapidly assimilating words from all over the globe. Linguist David Crystal (1987, 1995) estimated at least a million 'words' in the English language. Read Crystal's brief report; note that he disagrees with most estimates in terms of the size of the language and how many 'words' people know. The folks at Oxford University Press take a more conservative position, yet they acknowledge the size of the English language, relative to other written languages. Such differing views are due to methodology: Counting words is a slippery business, as explained by Michael Quinion at World Wide Words. According to Global Language Monitor, as of January 1, 2012, there were 1,013,913 words in the language, but many experts contest this "finding" due to methodology. Based on their Web-sweeps, this same Austin-based group of "language monitors" suggest that English is twice the size of Mandarin and five times the size of French. This too has been contested. See brief video below, aired June 4, 2009.

The size of any language is only an estimate. In this BBC podcast, Paul Payack, President of Global Language Monitor, and Benjamin Zimmer, consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary and producer of Visual Thesaurus, debate the merit of counting words.  Zimmer argues against the accuracy of any minute-by-minute word tally. His point is well taken.

Such debate aside, the language is large. The good news is that related words can be studied in morphological families, in effect, condensing the task somewhat. Morphological families of words share a common morpheme. For example, port is a Latin root meaning 'to carry.' Its broader morphological family includes more than a dozen words, called derivatives: porter, portable, import, importation, export, exportation, transport, transportation, transporter, deport, deportee, support, (here, sup- is really sub-, assimilated) supportive, insupportable, portage, etc. The core concept of 'to carry' manifests itself more or less transparently in each derivative. This family also includes the inflection ports.

Explore morphological families of words and isolate the shared morpheme. Include the element of context, vital to vocabulary study. Teach students to decipher unknown word meanings when reading independently by merging context clues with morpheme clues, as described below.
The explorers had to portage their canoes through forest and across field. After several hours, the weary travelers finally reached the nearest river. For the next four weeks, water would carry their burden. 
Help students resolve the meaning of portage by examining the external context clues and the internal morpheme clues. Note the context clues that help convey the meaning of portage. Teach students to look in every surrounding sentence for context clues. Then, circle the root port and write 'to carry' in the margin. Help students merge the clues to infer the meaning of portage. As for usage, explain that portage is typically used in the context of carrying boats to navigable water, not when we carry a grocery bag, for example.

Limitations: Morphemic analysis is most effective if the morphological family is large. When the unknown word belongs to a small family, we must hope for explicit context clues. For example, the word stringent belongs to a small morphological family; its meaning is not internally apparent. Because stringent is academic and abstract, this brief vocabulary video might provide a good introduction to the word. Reinforce the video with further study, use it in peer conversations, and examine the word in varied context, distributed over time.

Given the scope of the language, it makes sense to explore individual words and word families. This can begin in the primary grades with word families like sun, sunning, sunned, sunshine, sunscreen, suntan, sunny, sunnier, sunniest, etc.


Crystal, D. (1987). How many words? English Today, 12, 11-14.

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University Press.  

Seymour, P. H. K.  (2007).  Early reading development in European orthographies. In M.J. Snowling and C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 296-315). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.


  1. Hey Susan,

    There is so much great stuff for teachers in your post!

    - Studying morphological families helps students learn about many related words at one time, rather than just teaching words one at a time.

    - Teaching students how to make sense of new words by looking for BOTH internal context cues (morphological structure) and external context cues (e.g. sentence level cues) is more effective than just one or the other.

    - Morphology can be introduced in the primary grades!

    Not only do all of these points of yours make sense, I've found support for all of them in my research. Additionally, the evidence from the morphological interventions so far is that less able readers gain most from morphological instruction (feel free to email me for details if you wish).

    Like you, I use the strategy of having students circle the bases (also called roots). I would also encourage teachers to consider using the word sum to help make the structural links in families of words even more explicit. From your PORT family, some of the word sums students could build include:


    Spelling out word sums in this way helps familiarize students with prefixes and suffixes and bases that they will encounter in other word investigations. Children who have written out the SUP- prefix in the word sum above have a better chance of making the structure and meaning cues in words like SUPPRESS and SUPPOSE.

    Also note that to understand the written structural connection between words often means we need a way of showing suffixing changes. The words PLEASE, PLEASURE, UNPLEASANT and PLEASING are all connected, but circling the base poses a problem here. Word sums help kids learn the suffixing conventions for dropping single, silent Es, doubling consonants and Y/I changes. Knowing those suffixing changes helps students recognize important structural cues in words that have suffixing changes. Here is a great story from a science class with students using word sums to work out the link between the concept of CONDENSATION and the base of this word (DENSE):

    Here are links to a few practical tools teachers can use to help them investigate morphological families of words:

    WORD SUMS: See a video teaching about word sums here:

    WORD MATRIX: See how a word matrix shows the underlying structure of a word family here:

    WORD SEARCHER: This free on-line tool helps teachers find sets of words from morphological families so that you don't have to think of them off the top of your head. Here's a link to some free lessons using this tool:

    I hope teachers recognize that you are pointing them in a very important direction for vocabulary development. Most of us were never taught in this way ourselves. For those who have struggled how to improve our literacy instruction, it is a gift to discover such a rich resource like morphological structure right there in the written word just waiting to be exploited for learning.

  2. Thanks, Pete! I appreciate the additional tips and resources you offer. Especially, thanks for adding to the portage lesson. We make a good team! I like the idea of using the word sum process PORT + AGE -> PORTAGE, as this will help learners connect orthography to morphology and vocabulary. Further, the word sum should result in a greater willingness to use the new word in written sentences. All good!

    Yes, your cutting edge research does indeed show that this type of work is effective in primary grades. No need to put morphology study on hold, folks!

  3. Forgot something, Pete. Yes, as you said, recent research does seem to indicate that instruction in morphology appears to help children and adults overcome reading difficulties, including dyslexia. This finding has so much potential!

    Pete, perhaps some day you will write a blog entry about your research in this area?

  4. The sum is greater than the whole.

    My, my...I step away for a few moments & look what you've done to the place. It looks AMAZING! I love the recent posts, all the great links, rich resources, etc., but my eyes are spinning in the back of my head right now. It's enough to have me give up crimefighting and start educating young people.

    All the talk about port has me reaching for a bottle of wine. I should recover by next weekend, ready for my next dose of Vocabulogic.

  5. Welcome back, PG! You were missed! Yes, we've done some remodeling in the last month. Thanks for noticing! Such keen powers of observation must come in handy when fighting crime and protecting the planet(aka promoting education).

    Port wine. Interesting connection. I prefer Tawny, just before bed. It 'carries' me right off.

  6. Anonymous2/04/2010

    Even in cross-curricular learning teachers can utilze morphology. As a middle school Art teacher, I find that student have a hard time understanding the concept of radial balance. The best way for me to get the concept across is through morphology. We discuss radial tires, radiators, radiation from the sun, any word related radial.
    Thank you for varifying that this is a sound way to increase knowledge.

  7. Exactly, Anonymous! Your way of teaching radial balance is a perfect example. Teachers can help students grasp abstract concepts through well-known, less abstract, related derivatives like rays of the sun and radiator. As you say, all content area teachers can do this.

    PS...I just checked etymonline and the root of radial is -radius-, which is Latin for 'staff, spoke of wheel, beam of light.' Makes sense!


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