Two years ago, I wrote about how I was teaching root words to my year 7s.
In short: I was going through around 240 roots (e.g. “dem”) and talking through links to a cluster of Tier 2 words (e.g. “democratic”) and the meaning that links this cluster together (“people”). Each week, they had to revise for a quiz. Thus, pupils had understanding (from teacher explanation) and practice (from Quizlet/look-cover-write-check).
Gratifyingly, my new school, the West London Free School, has adopted my approach, so I’ve put in a bit more spit, polish and thought, which I will share here.
Firstly, our method:
- Teachers talk through ten roots per week.
- Pupils have a self-quizzing booklet (attached) which they use to self-quiz, completing one of the seven columns per night.
- Quizzes are done on A4 paper torn into quarters.
- Teacher reads out e.g. “dem” (and maybe “as in democracy” if it’s a tricky one) and pupils write down “people”.
- Quizzes are then collected in by the teacher and sorted into bad, good, and excellent.
- Failing a quiz does not result in a detention, but the top performers earn house points.
- Every term, a 100-question (difficult) exam (attached) tests the depth of their understanding.
- Teachers can mark this very quickly using a right-or-wrong answer key.
- The results are mailmerged home, along with an explanation of what Root Words are and why performance is linked almost entirely to homework effort.
- Each exam is cumulative (encompassing the root words covered in previous exams).
- Teachers talk up the importance of these exams and of filling gaps in knowledge to try and make the motivation as close to intrinsic as possible (rather than about avoiding a detention this week).
Pupils have been responding well and with impressive elbow-grease, considering we haven’t doled out any actual sanctions for not bothering (although emails home did contain each pupil’s class ranking).
- Booklet front page: root words front cover
- The inside of the booklet: root words booklet
- An exam on the first 50 words: root words exam
- The answer key: root words exam answers
- A template for mailmerging home results: root words mailmerge
N.B. I made the exam by writing excel formulas to choose one example word at random for each root, then sorting the columns by some random criterion to shuffle them, then changing the font colour of the numbers in the second and third columns to white. If I don’t upload exams for the remaining words, you can make your own! The exam was intended to be pretty hard, so that pupils with a really thorough knowledge of the Root Words get above 90% and those who are trying to get by on inference get below 50%. The results seemed to bear this out.
Obviously, the best way to learn a word which is crucial for understanding a specific lesson is the mastery approach (which Lia Martin recently blogged about here). Obviously, the best way to learn thousands of words (and let’s not forget how big the vocabulary gap is!) is not mastery. Devoting 15 minutes each to thousands of words is quixotic.
Nor is the best way to learn thousands of words lists of synonyms. These lead to a horrendous number of misconceptions. I shudder when I remember the dictionary-vomit which resulted from this approach. No, you may not describe a moat as profound. “Profound” does not mean the same as “deep”.
Root words avoid fostering these misconceptions because, being only fragments of words, they are clearly marked “requires assembly”. Pupils can only use them as a starting point for their inferences.
However, by delivering 240 root words, you will also have sown the seeds of understanding for the well over a thousand tier 2 words in the Examples column. Mastery aims to deliver 100% understanding of a single word; this approach aims for 20% understanding of over a thousand words.
The remaining 80% must come from independent reading. The aim is merely to catalyse the acquisition of vocabulary through reading. Here is how I see it working:
A totally unfamiliar word stays in the working memory until we can roughly infer its meaning from context. Our inferences are often wrong. Other times, there are too many unfamiliar words to puzzle out and our working memory becomes overloaded. If we had some clue to get started with, there’s a lot more chance that we will keep our heads above water. Once we are swimming, the Matthew Effect will mean that those thousand words pull more than their weight, because they will provide clues with which to pick up other words.
Thanks to whoever made the original list, from which I adapted the list in this booklet, and thanks also to my team at the WLFS for helping me hone this method. I hope this is useful!