Planting the Roots for Vocabulary Growth

A focus on effective vocabulary teaching has been a central tenet of our literacy policy at Durrington for a few years now and also forms an essential part of our whole-school PP strategy, which you can read about here and here Up until now, the focus has predominantly been on explicit vocabulary teaching, i.e. explicitly pre-teaching tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary that is crucial for accessing the curriculum. The teaching of these words and phrases is planned and stated on the curriculum and this means that it is consistent across all lessons in the subject. Teachers use evidence-informed strategies to teach this vocabulary such as sentence stems and the Frayer model.

Since the start of this term, we have elucidated further how to effectively teach new vocabulary as it occurs more spontaneously in the lesson as well as introduced a new strand to our vocabulary strategy based on the teaching of root words. This latter strand is crucial because, as well as direct teaching of vocabulary that is integral to the curriculum, we also want to increase our students’ word consciousness (see Alex Quigley here). By creating this word consciousness, we are handing over the tools to students so that they are better equipped to decipher meaning themselves when they encounter words they do not know. This is best achieved through teaching morphology (word parts). If students have a secure knowledge of word parts, they have the keys to unlocking the codified world of language.

How This Works at Durrington

Our approach is not complicated – we’ve tried to keep it simple but effective. Every fortnight we promote a different Greek or Latin root word to students. These root words have been selected using two criterion:

  • They are among the most frequent root words in the English language.
  • They are useful for vocabulary that students will encounter across subjects.

The root words that we have selected for the first wave of this strategy are:

cent – one hundred

circum – around

contra/counter – against

dys – bad, hard, unlucky

form – shape

fract – to break

graph – writing

hydr – water

mal – bad

mis/miso – hate

multi – many

spect/sec – to look

tele – far off

struct – to build

The next step is to ensure that students encounter the root word of the fortnight as much as possible and in varied contexts; this will help to deepen their understanding, or consciousness, of how the root word works. Consequently, we have adapted a multifaceted approach and one that entails all staff members’ engagement.

  • All classroom teachers display the root word of the fortnight at the front of their classrooms.

  • All members of staff with an office have been asked to display the root word of the fortnight on their doors. This includes teaching and non-teaching staff, and especially those with doors that are in high-traffic areas, for example members of the pastoral team.

Displaying these root words is nowhere near enough to make them a part of students’ word knowledge. However, what this visual approach does achieve is initiating conversations with our students, usually starting with the no-nonsense question, “Why are there blue cards everywhere with cent written on them?” In this way, we are creating opportunities for students to start talking, and therefore thinking, about the roots of their language.

  • All classroom teachers and teaching assistants are also actively seeking opportunities to explain how the root word of the fortnight works within the lesson they are teaching, if appropriate. For example, when cent was the focus root, an MFL teacher used it to help explain the formation of words used to label the higher numbers in French. Likewise, a maths teacher used it when teaching the names of different-sided shapes.

  • To support the above work, curriculum leaders flag up the root word of the fortnight in their departmental e-bulletins and provide suggestions as to when attention could be drawn to the root in upcoming lessons. See below an example from the computing and business bulletin.
  • Some departments have also made simple displays using the root word and signposting the where the root can be found in their subject-specific vocabulary.
  • We also provide exposure to the root word during a Period 1 slot. At Durrington, Period 1 is a 30-minute lesson led by form tutors at the start of the day (you can read more about Period 1 here). All tutors spend some of Monday morning P1 making students engage with the root word using evidence-informed strategies. The fact that this is done weekly means that we have two opportunities to teach the root word. This has proved invaluable for tackling misconceptions…

Reflections on the Strategy in its Early Days

By far the greatest issue that we have faced in this early phase is the misconceptions that teachers and students alike can have with regards to the root words. For example, cent is Latin for one hundred but many tried to make links to words such as centre and eccentric, which come from a different root. This has led to some confused discussions and garbled explanations!

Thus, it has become clear that teaching morphology means tackling the complexity of the English language head on. However, rather than see this as a challenge to overcome, we have instead embraced it as an opportunity to have even more in-depth conversations about the way our language works. This is where the fortnightly structure has been fortuitous: The misconceptions have revealed themselves in the first week and we have cleared them up in the second! As the strategy matures, we will be in a better position to anticipate these sticky patches before they arise but for now we are enjoying the surprises and satisfaction that comes with cracking the code.

Fran Haynes

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