Sunday, August 5, 2012

Etymology & Morphology Standards (survey results)

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide learning goals for grades K-12. These new objectives have been adopted by 45 states (see map). In this post, I discuss the CCSS that pertain to etymology and morphology and argue that the Standards do not adequately address etymology. I begin with the survey results and conclude with websites and books for teaching etymology.

The survey reveals a somewhat keen  interest in word origins for more than half the respondents (72 of 127 voters). Given the readership of Vocabulogic, this is perhaps not surprising, but it is promising. If teachers are interested in something, students are more likely to become interested, too (especially if they like the teacher). In his classic work, Principles of Teaching, Thorndike (1906) suggested that the second cause of interest is the force of imitation; he argued that students will be interested in whatever interests the community—including their teachers and fellow students—and the interest will be acquired almost by infection.

Yes, in the CCSS, the English Language Arts (ELA) Standards include morphological awareness (knowledge of word structure, especially via affixes and roots). While morphological awareness (MA) is never mentioned per se in the Standards, the related content is included as a sub-skill across every grade, K-12. However, to find the standards that apply to MA, one must search around a bit, hunting in the various domains under ELA: Reading, Language, Foundational Skills. Search for the terms inflectional endings, suffixes, prefixes, affixes, compound words, Greek and Latin roots. Below is one example standard, showing the morphology bits, from grade 3:

Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning word and phrases based on grade 3 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • Determine the meaning of the new word formed when a known affix is added to a known word (e.g., agreeable/disagreeable, comfortable/uncomfortable, care/careless, heat/preheat). 
  • Use a known root word as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word with the same root (e.g., company, companion).

Etymology is the study of how words have changed in form, meaning, and usage over time, including the origins of words--whether a word was first used by the ancient Greeks, for example. See prior post and see post by Shane Templeton.

Etymology is almost forgotten in the Common Core ELA Standards. The search term etymology appears only twice (!!) across the entire document, K-12. The search term word origins is not found at all.  The standard first appears in grades 9-10 and repeats in grades 11-12:

Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9–10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology. 

Hmm. It seems to me that the etymology bit was almost an afterthought. The language is certainly not strong, and only applies to high school. Why is etymology given slight attention? I know not. But, in support of this decision, researchers have not sufficiently explored how etymological insight relates to either morphological insight, vocabulary knowledge, or even orthographic knowledge (how to spell).

On the other hand, learning about word histories might be viewed as one way to make the word stick. If we know why a word is so named, and have a sense of its history, we might better remember it. Vocabulary researcher Stephen Stahl explained it like this, in his book Vocabulary Development (1999, pp 22-23):
"Telling word stories can make words memorable. Knowing that bilious comes from the medieval humor, bile, which caused anger...makes the word more memorable"
Likewise, knowing that robot originally meant "forced laborer or slave' (from Czech robotnik "slave," from robota "forced labor, drudgery") makes the word far more interesting, more three dimensional, cognitively "sticky" or memorable, and infused with history. In my view, learning etymology reinforces the study of history, and the reverse is also true.

There is another reason to include word origins long before high school. English freely adopts foreign loan words (prior post). English contains words from dozens--if not hundreds--of other languages. It is important to be aware of this fact, especially from a spelling perspective.

I would not suggest spending a lot of time on word histories, but I see no reason to wait until high school to integrate the history of the word into the vocabulary lesson--with the caveat that this need only happen occasionally, and only if the etymology is interesting. Likewise, why not infuse etymology lessons into history lessons, where applicable and interesting?

Students might start exploring brief word histories as soon as they have a sense of the world and can read a world map--certainly by fourth grade. This should help them remember meanings, spell words, and pronounce words. Perhaps learning about word histories will help students realize that English is only one of many languages of the world. Indeed, it might help them become interested in learning another language.

Abracadabera to Zombie: More Than 300 Wacky Word Origins by Don and Pam Wulffson (short and sweet little etymologies, aimed at about grade 4)

Frindle, a chapter book aimed at about 5th grade, by Andrew Clements (fast paced and fun, used by many teachers)

A History of English in its Own Words, by Craig Carver (word histories provided, organized by time period: Anglo Saxon/Old English, French-based Middle English, Renaissance, etc.)

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford Dictionary, aimed at older students or adults, by Simon Winchester (a riveting read)

Douglas Harper's site: Online Etymology Dictionary

Ben Zimmer's website: Word Routes

Dave Wilton's website: 

Michael Quinion's website: World Wide Words 

Barry Popik's website: Barry

Charles Hodgson's podcasts: Podictionary

Oxford English Dictionary: Oxford Online

Anu Garg's website: A Word a Day at

Fun with Words website: Etymology Section


Stahl, S. A. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Thorndike, E. L. (1906). The Principles of Teaching: Based on Psychology. A. G. Seiler: New York.


  1. Melody@yahoo.com8/05/2012

    This subject is very timely for us in Louisiana: our kindergarten and first grade are moving into CCSS this fall. One of the biggest concerns for some of us is: although the standards will set us free to teach, if the teacher lacks knowledge, what does that mean for the students? Knowledgeable teachers will realize that morphology and etymology are prerequisite skills in vocabulary and spelling. Because they are poorly addressed does not mean they are unimportant. We need to be sure our teachers are educated properly so they can identify prerequisite skills for all standards in order to ensure student success in this transition.

  2. Good point, Melody. That is a dilemma. Teacher inservice sessions can help a lot, but we also need better pre-service teacher education coursework and benchmarks in colleges and universities.

    At the same time, we cannot learn everything in 4 or 5 years, so teachers must actively pursue their own professional growth throughout their career. "As men teach, they learn" (Seneca).

    I think a large part of the solution rests with learning through technology and social media--from this website, for one example. Getting connected with other professionals in the digital community allows for flexibility, autonomy, and individualization of content and professional learning goals.


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