Sunday, July 24, 2011

More Than the Sum of Their Parts (Templeton)

Our thanks to Dr. Shane Templeton for contributing this post.  A former classroom teacher at the primary and secondary levels, Shane’s research has focused on developmental word knowledge in elementary, middle, and high school students. He has published in a number of research and practitioner journals, and is co-author of Vocabulary Their Way and Words Their Way. His other books include Teaching the Integrated Language Arts and Children's Literacy: Contexts for Meaningful Learning. With Kristin Gehsmann at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, Shane is writing Teaching Reading and Writing, K-8: The Developmental Approach, to be published by Allyn & Bacon in January, 2013. Since 1987, Shane has been a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He is an educational consultant for The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary and wrote the foreword to the recently-published Curious George’s Dictionary. Visit his website.

I’m delighted to be invited to contribute to this blog – thanks, Susan! What I’d like to play further with here is a phenomenon just about all of us have experienced – what it signals and where it may take us and our students:

Let’s say the students are catching on to the role of Greek and Latin word roots and how they combine with affixes when, inevitably, a word comes up that does not seem to mean the sum of its parts. The word circumspect, for example, comprises the two Latin roots circum ('around') and spect ('look') – when combined, we have the literal meaning of 'look around,' and how does that fit in a sentence such as “Being a new student at Forks High School, Bella behaved in a very circumspect manner the first few days”? Does that mean she 'looked around' a lot?

Well, actually, yes: We share with students the definition of circumspect – "you are cautious in what you say and do and do not take risks” (Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary) and then we “think aloud” about how this meaning might have evolved: “Before you jump into a new situation, you are going to look around a lot, trying to read the people and the situation you’re in – you’re cautious, you’re not taking risks – you’re behaving in a circumspect manner.” We might continue by inviting students to talk about how and when Bella behaved in a circumspect way in the Twilight series – and when she did not!

The linguist Donald Ayers made the following observation:
“When you find a word which is capable of analysis but which means something quite different from the sum of its parts, plug in your curiosity and try to determine how its present sense developed.” 
That’s easy for linguists to say, of course, because they’re nothing if not curious about words, but in reality so many of our students are not. For them, we will want to model this way of thinking about how words work; it is, of course, an important part of developing word consciousness. When we plug in our curiosity and model how the present sense of a word may have developed from an earlier literal sense, we are helping our students develop a sensitivity that extends beyond the particular word we’re talking about at the time. We’re scaffolding for our students “a whole new level and habit of thinking about words in general” (Templeton et al., 2010).

Their dawning realization that words not appearing to mean the sum of their parts provides students a portal to the next level of word consciousness – a more systematic exploration of where words come from – their etymologies. Etymon in Greek refers to the 'true sense of a word,' and this original "true sense” – most often a fairly concrete concept – is one aspect of etymology; another is the word’s historical development since its birth, including its cognates across different languages. With a few resources as our foundation (please see the list, below), we may share “etymological narratives” about words with our students. We begin with engaging words, words that represent our students’ experiences and background knowledge and concepts. For example, students are intrigued with the etymology of decimate – what in the world does it have to do with 'ten', the Latin root (dec) it contains? Readers of this blog know at least one of the several variations of this story, but at heart, the literal meaning is 'to kill every tenth' – the fate of Roman soldiers who had mutinied and from whose ranks every tenth was chosen by lot to be executed.

Less gruesome but of equal interest, the names of domains of study carry the essence of their enterprise: Science literally means 'to know' (related words are discipline and conscience, 'knowing with' oneself). Music comes from the Muses, mythological Greek daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who presided over the arts and sciences (museum; musicians and writers hearing the voice of the Muse). Trigonometry comes from the Classical Greek three-sided musical instrument, the trigon.

Click to enlarge, download.

Greek and Latin roots came in turn from earlier roots. Indo-European, or IE, is an ancient reconstructed language, hypothesized to be the "Mother Tongue" to English and a host of other languages. The image of the tree shows languages that flow from Indo-European. (Permission granted to post on Vocabulogic, from Ben Slade, linguist, who modified the original image, primary source not found.)

I’d like to give a shout-out to the “original” Bringing Words to Life, one title in a two-volume set published in 1989 by Sandra Robinson (Teachers College Press) addressing how to teach about Indo-European to elementary-age students. These two volumes provide 1) the background for teaching how words have grown from the Indo-European language as well as 2) integrated lessons that support and involve students’ developing understanding of etymology. Sandra and her colleagues were addressing what we have in the last few years been referring to as “word consciousness” – how a sense of where words began and how their meanings evolved as they traveled through, eventually, over half of the world’s languages, moving from an original “literal” sense and taking on more metaphorical tones. Examples that Sandra and her colleagues share include the root BHEL which meant 'to swell' almost 8,000 years ago in the Indo-European language. From this root we get, in English, balloon, ball, bowl, boulder, billow, bold; from DHREU meaning 'to fall' we get drip, drop, dreary, drowsy. Beginning with these more literal examples, students will be primed for more metaphorical excursions: The IE root KERD meant 'heart;' in addition to its referring to 'the organ' and 'a kindly disposition' (someone has a kind heart), it has also come to refer to a creed, a belief that is felt in the heart, and courage, a boldness felt in the heart – from coeur, the French word for 'heart', which also evolved from the earlier KERD. Vowels and consonants change, meaning changes subtly and significantly, but the core meaning of IE roots live on in words today.

As Robinson has demonstrated, and as we know from research in the development of morphological knowledge, we can lay the groundwork for this type of sensitivity to words in the elementary grades. We should, of course, begin systematically teaching about word formation processes that include Greek and Latin word roots in third and fourth grade, and we can also begin to tell our etymological narratives at those levels. And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites. Of course, even when we do know, we often encourage the students to go check it out.

Explore the related perspectives of several of the individuals who have contributed to this blog, including Marcia Henry, Pete Bowers, and of course Susan Ebbers (I love Susan’s Mindful Zen of Morphology which she shared last year). Here is a sampling of some of the related work my colleagues and I have done in this area and a handful of some of our most-often-consulted resources:

Read about this book
Appendix of Indo-European Roots, American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

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

Claiborne, Robert. (1989). The roots of English: A reader’s handbook of word origins. New York: Times Books.

Shipley, Joseph. (1984). The origins of English words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (As we note in Vocabulary Their Way, we believe Shipley’s book is the ultimate source for truly dedicated wordsmiths!)

Templeton, S., Bear, D. R., Johnston, F., & Invernizzi, M. (2010). Vocabulary Their Way: Word study for middle and secondary students. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Templeton, S., Johnston, F., Bear, D., & Invernizzi, M. (2009). Word sorts for derivational relations spellers (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


  1. Anonymous7/24/2011

    Hi Susan! Great information. I can't wait to read Dr. Templeton's new book. As I have all of the others. Mary Grove

  2. Hi Mary! Thanks! Yes, Words Their Way is practically a staple in every classroom. I am looking forward to reading Shane's new book, too.

  3. I was delighted to see Shane Templeton was the guest blogger for this edition of Vocabulogic!

    The kinds of conversations described here supported by diving into various references to make sense of how words and meanings evolve over time is such rich classroom practice. I'd like to highlight this point of Shane's that is so important for teachers, " And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites."

    It's not that teachers need to know the answers, but that we model smart ways for going about looking for answers to questions that grab our attention or the attention of our students.

    I will add that I've found that it is very productive to talk about word histories in the youngest grades as well. For example, there are marvellous stories about the names of the days of the week that children love and that can be used set this kind of thinking about words in place right from the start. For example, clicking on Etymonline (linked in Susan's "Useful Websites") shows that the word Monday is related to O.E. monandæg "day of the moon". Looking up Friday gets on on the road to seeing a connection to an old God of married love named "Frigg". This is the beginning of an investigation that can help students learn that FRIDAY and FRIEND both go back to this same history -- thus making sense of the spelling of FRIEND!

    I am a regular user of Ayto's book that Shane suggests. It's wonderful, and I'm going to be on the lookout for some of these others he points to that I do not know.

    And while we are sharing references, I have long pointed teachers and researchers to a chapter by Shane called "The vocabulary-spelling connection: Orthographic development and morphological knowledge at the intermediate grades and beyond" in Baumann & Kame’enui's (2004) book "Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice." I encourage readers to look out for that one too!


  4. Middleton8/02/2011

    Smashing! I must have been a linguist in another life, because I live for this. You've got me curious about trigonometry now--I shall go sort it out.

  5. Hi Shane,

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences with Vocabulogic readers. What a gift!

    In case people already have a good dictionary, Houghton Mifflin also publishes a smaller paperback, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

    Let me just add that I really appreciate the Houghton Mifflin American Heritage Dictionary, because it provides information regarding word origins, roots, affixes (and because that lovely book was given to me by a friend, a fellow wordsmith!)

    To echo Pete Bowers, the Online Etymology Dictionary is quite useful, too (


  6. This important and welcome article is a breath of fresh linguistic air in an area of schooling that is generally characterized more for its vapidity and superficiality than for its depth and rigour. Hats off to Shane Templeton!

    Here we are in the realm of diachronic semantics, the study of the development of meaning in a living language - a wonderful opportunity for seeing it as an organic and growing entity. Shane’s presentation nicely illustrates that shifts of usage and meaning over time may be quite considerable, but that they nevertheless do not lose echoes in some way or another of their original denotation.

    There are, for orthographers, two types of denotation; lexicographic and orthographic.

    Lexicographic denotation is the initial and main meaning assigned to a lemma (a dictionary header word). Thus, for instance, the lexicographic denotation of ‘dependable’ is “trustworthy and reliable”. The lexicographic denotation, then, is a dictionary definition of a specific derived word.

    Orthographic denotation, on the other hand, is the sense and meaning of a word’s base element, which is not necessarily, and often isn’t, identical with the dictionary denotation of a word derived from it.

    Thus, the structure of ‘dependable’ that is ‘de + pend+ able’ signals the word’s base element as being ‘pend’ whose specific orthographic denotation is “hang”. Certainly this orthographic denotation might seem to have little or no connection with the lexicographic denotation “trustworthy and reliable” - until, that is, we see the lexical family to which ‘dependable’ belongs.

    Consider ‘pendant’ - a relative of ‘dependable’ because it shares the same base element. As an adjective, ‘pendant’ means “hanging down” - pretty close to the orthographic denotation. As a noun, ‘pendant’ has the lexicographic denotation “a piece of jewellery that hangs from a chain worn around the neck”.

    From this, we perceive the interrelationship between ‘dependable’ and the orthographic denotation of its root; the idea of “dependability” is one of being able safely to “hang” from or on some person, object or idea. People complaining about having ‘dependent’ children may well have a quite literal image of their offspring actually hanging round their necks!

    We see from this example, as with Shane’s ‘circumspect’, that the denotation of a root will have echoes, however faint, in the meanings of words descended from it.

    Furthermore, appreciating a word’s etymology and the orthographic denotation of its root leads to understanding of fine nuances of meaning that can often help in distinguishing it from its synonyms.

    This is also the reason why a properly constructed lexical matrix will signal the orthographic denotation of the base element - a meaning that will be present, however faintly, in any of the derivations that the base might generate.

    A further benefit of Shane Templeton’s excellent article is that it leads his readers to focus on specifically orthographic etymology. For those who are interested in a deeper encounter with the subject, there is a tutorial explanation of the two dimensions of orthographic etymology on the Real Spelling web site,, where it is ‘This Month’s Tutorial’; it will remain posted throughout August.

  7. I have been excited about and impressed with the comments here! Thanks to you all. Truly there is a movement afoot, with such knowledgeable and dedicated standard-bearers as you, to develop awareness among educators of these deeper levels – not just for the sake of their exploration but for the consequential insights and understandings they afford our students.

    Pete, thanks very much for your mention of my chapter in Baumann & Kame’enui’s book. The second edition of this will be published soon, and I was grateful to refer to your work in my revised chapter for that edition.

  8. I agree that there is a movement afoot to develop "awareness" -- and I think there's an even more important movement afoot to develop an *accurate* awareness. I appreciated this post and shared it with the undergraduates in an English Orthography course I taught this past fall at Illinois State University. Here's a link to their collective response:


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