Look Inside Language

In a research paper entitled Romancing Our Readers, Dr. Abigail Konopasky points out that: up until 4th grade a student’s central literacy job is to memorize; she must read a relatively large number of words by ‘sight’ and then be able to reproduce the spelling of those words in her writing. The paper goes on to explain that the focus shifts in upper elementary school. Instead of learning to read, the student’s job becomes reading to learn. While memorizing is still important, the larger goal is analyzing, or as explained in a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation: using their skills to gain more information in subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically about what they are learning, and to act upon and share that knowledge in the world around them.

To support our young readers with these new essential tasks, it’s helpful to understand what is happening at the word level. Dr. Konopasky points out that in Grade 4, many of the new words being introduced are actually in a new language. The vast majority of monosyllabic (one-syllable) English words and quite a few disyllabic (two-syllable) English words are from the Germanic language family (via the Anglo-Saxons). These are words that describe our everyday, concrete activities, words that show up in elementary school readers. Meanwhile, the majority of multisyllabic English words are from the Romance language family (mainly via French, Latin and Greek).

She continues: a student reading Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, must navigate perspiration, commotion, endure, approximate, salutations, gullible, exertion, and other highly descriptive root words. A student reading Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, commonly taught in grade 5, must make sense of exasperated, imperious, belligerent, impassive, residential, intricate, designate, and many others. The root words have arrived!

So our K-3 students live mostly in the Anglo-Saxon world of everyday words. The spellings may be irregular, but the meanings are generally simple. Romance words, by contrast, are harder to comprehend, but they offer a compelling opportunity. Here’s Dr. Konopasky again: Fortunately, the characteristic that makes Romance vocabulary so different from Germanic vocabulary also makes it teachable: its root structure. All of these Romance words can be broken down into parts; they can be analyzed.

A New Way of Seeing Words
Teaching our students to analyze words pays numerous dividends. First, it requires them to slow down. Tinkering with roots is a powerful antidote to the bad habits born of the perpetually on-screen lifestyle. The new habit is all about investigating, giving text some time.

Secondly, the same roots can show up in numerous words, so a reader can borrow meaning from one to help unpack another. For example, a student can use invisible “not able to be seen” to shed light on provisions,the results of looking ahead”. If you are pro-vising “forward looking,” you will have the stuff you need for your journey. On the other hand, if you don’t look ahead, you will need to improvise. The extra prefix im “not” steers the word to a new place. Notice that we can teach word analysis with relatively simple words. It’s all about helping the students get comfortable with the process. It’s no big deal. It’s what we do. And pretty soon, whole vistas of words can come to life. This is how vocabulary is acquired exponentially!

Seeing Words:

And it’s not only possible to associate words within a family; we can also make connections with other families that share common meanings.

More Seeing Words:

So many words about seeing, and so much to see! The benefits keep piling up. Looking at root structure also supports spelling. Why does collaborate have two l’s? Because of a doubling rule that sometimes works? No, because the prefix col “together” ends with an l, and the base root labor “work” starts with one. That’s why!

But most of all, working with roots builds word curiosity and helps students take on a sense of authority with English. It’s all about “learning to fish”, having command of the academic process, reading to learn. Let’s help our young readers develop the eyesight to look inside language!

Impertinent Lieutenant Plays Tennis with Tenacity

Hold on! I have an exceptional root to share with you. It shows up in various spellings like tain, ten, tent, and tin, and means “hold, reach, occupy, persist, remain, retain, grasp.” In one form or another, it’s all about holding.

Let’s look at impertinent. What’s the logic of this word? For starters, it maps back to pertain, “be appropriate, related, or applicable”. The prefix per “through” modifies the base root tain to create the sense “to hold through”. The adjective pertinent, “relevant or applicable to a particular matter”, is closely related. When it picks up the extra prefix im “not” to form impertinent, we get the sense of an idea “not holding through”, or “not relevant or applicable”. Over time this meaning also picked up a sense of deliberateness. Now it’s not just that an idea or comment is not applicable, it’s that the speaker meant it that way. Impertinent moves the focus from the message to the messenger, from not relevant to rude and disrespectful.

“Who are you talking to?” said the King, coming up to Alice, and looking at the Cat’s head with great curiosity.
“It’s a friend of mine—a Cheshire-Cat,” said Alice: “allow me to introduce it.”
“I don’t like the look of it at all,” said the King: “however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes.”
“I’d rather not,” the Cat remarked.
“Don’t be impertinent,” said the King, “and don’t look at me like that!”
From: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carrol

But if you will listen to his letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.”
“No, that I am sure I shall not; and I think it was very impertinent of him to write to you at all, and very hypocritical. I hate such false friends.
From: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Next, let’s look at lieutenant. What does this word have to do with holding? The lieu, loc root means “place”, and the family includes words like milieu, locale, dislocate, and locomotive (“that which moves from place to place”). So a lieutenant is “one who holds the place of another”, a substitute or deputy. For example, an army lieutenant is put in command when the captain is absent.

Tennis players must hold a racquet, but is the sport named for this? No, the most common story describes the server hollering “tenez!”, meaning “hold, receive, take”, prior to delivering the ball. Also, the sport was originally just played with the hands and called jeu de paume, “game of the palm”. This certainly required some holding and reaching. But overall there is no consensus on the etymology of tennis. Somehow the French came up with the name and we’ve been holding onto it ever since.

Which brings us to tenacity. This is a great example of a word that really comes to light if we focus on the roots. To have tenacity is “to hold fast, to persist”. And there are many others like this. Our countenance is our composure: “that which holds us together.” An untenable argument does not hold up to scrutiny. That which is sustainable is well supported: “held up from below.” Similarly, sustenance holds us up and helps us “remain, persist.” A tenet is a belief that is held as true.

Let’s help our students become tenacious root detectives and to take hold of the logic of words!

Just Sitting Around the Residence Learning Assiduous and Insidious

According to the US Department of Education, the number one strategy for improving reading comprehension is explicit vocabulary instruction. General guidelines are provided, but teachers must still decide what words to teach and how to deliver them. Using lists, workbooks, and other one-word-at-a-time options, students will generally cover 150-300 words in a school year. Considering high-stakes assessments draw on many thousands of words, how can this approach improve outcomes?

There is a better way. Rather than having your students memorize one word at a time, teach word families! The English language has about 2000 critical Latin and Greek root families that drive the vast majority of multisyllabic words. This may sound like a lot of families, but it’s a manageable number compared to the tens of thousands of words students need to build a robust vocabulary. Roots bring this task within reach, especially if the families are learned systematically over several years. (Grades 4-10 are ideal). Once a student has taken on the habit of looking for roots in unfamiliar words, reading comprehension is certain to improve.

Consider these passages:

…they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed, employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. From Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. From Dracula, by Bram Stoker

The reader can glean some sense of assiduously from the context, but analyzing the roots really brings it to light. Here are the steps:

  1. Break it down! as-sid-uous-ly.
  2. Identify the base root: sid
  3. Think of a word with sid that you knowHere’s one: residence, “place where one sits back, settles.”
  4. Apply the base root meaning to the context. In both cases, the protagonists are very focused on a task. They have “settled into” the task and are applying themselves to it.

You might ask: why not just look the word up? Yes, but this takes time, and on a test is not permitted. Also, decoding the word as part of a family will make retention more stable. The student will now be on the lookout for other “sit, settle” words, and there are many!

Let’s consider a couple more passages:

The seniors had been trotted off to the improvised obstacle course in the woods, or to have their blood pressure taken again, or to undergo an insidious exercise in The Cage which consisted in stepping up on a box and down again in rapid rhythm for five minutes. From A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

Although teachers do not hold bombs or knives, they are still dangerous enemies. They fill us with insidious revisionist ideas. They teach us that scholars are superior to workers. They promote personal ambition by encouraging competition for the highest grades. From Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-li Jiang

Now what “sitting and settling” is going on with insidious? The context definitely signals a negative vibe. Our students, the roots detectives, must investigate! (Side note: the root vestig comes from the Latin vestigium “footprint, track”, so to investigate is etymologically “to follow footprints.”) The idea of settling on something does not mean you are squashing it all at once; it has more of an “exerting pressure over time” connotation. The pressure may be subtle at first, but it sits there, working its treachery, and eventually doing harm. It is insidious.

If our students learn to follow root paths from easy words like residence, residue or subside to challenging words like assiduous and insidious, they will gain more than just large vocabularies. This process also builds word curiosity and critical thinking. Working with roots draws the reader into the word, and by extension, into the text. Let’s teach our students to be word investigators!

To learn your roots, visit www.wordvoyage.com