Root Words Revisited

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).


  1. Booklet front page: root words front cover
  2. The inside of the booklet: root words booklet
  3. An exam on the first 50 words: root words exam
  4. The answer key: root words exam answers
  5. 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!

What would Useful English Exams be Like?

In the last three posts, I set out what I see as the problem to solve. We need to allow teaching which is useful beyond merely the exam, so that exam success align with doing some actual good in the world (since exam success alone is morally neutral). The main good that we could do is to teach stories and their meanings, so that we help impart wisdom to our pupils.

Exam 1: Grammar and Vocabulary

Before I suggest what kind of exam would promote reading stories for wisdom, let me quickly suggest something more directly practical: a vocabulary and grammar exam. I think this information would be extremely useful for everyone (especially employers). What’s more, it could be computerised and marked without paying an army of English teachers to torture themselves all summer.

What incentives would this create for schools? It’s clear that secondary schools would have to start taking grammar more seriously. Frankly, it’s pretty dismal that Expressive Writing doesn’t have more competition as a secondary grammar textbook, when it’s really designed for primary. Grammar would be so easy to master if we put our minds to it—for all the fluidity of language, if we choose the right system to explain it then it could be taught as easily as touch typing. Perhaps a textbook would be best placed to do this, or perhaps a computer programme would.

So schools would be incentivised to teach grammar seriously, efficiently and regularly. What about vocabulary? To allay any fears that teachers would end up drilling masses of vocabulary (which can be appallingly counterproductive) let me say briefly that I think schools would realise that they can only effectively teach masses of vocabulary indirectly. I’ll blog again soon on how we are doing that at West London Free School.

Exam 2: Literature

Incidentally, I think it would be a mistake to call this exam “English Literature”. There’s nothing wrong with texts in translation, if we aren’t analysing the writer’s craft. Go ahead, teach The Swiss Family Robinson! Teach Beowulf!

The key thing for this exam is that all exam-technique shortcuts be impossible. That is, there should not be any way teachers could boost grades by spending time on something fundamentally useless beyond the exam (like explaining what AQA include as structure for Q3).

I suggest that Comparative Judgement is the way to go. There should be absolutely no exam spec, no mark scheme, no examiners report. Examiners should simply ask themselves: which is the more interesting essay? Technique should be considered not in itself, but only inasmuch as it supports the presentation of interesting points.

The aim would be for teachers to be able to ask themselves, “How can I boost grades?” and the only answer be “All I can do is get them to think interesting thoughts about the text”. Or, occasionally, “I can teach them how to make their ideas clearer” and spend some time teaching essay-writing techniques which would be useful whatever the subject, the exam, or the exam board. The less information available about the exam, the more widely useful the teaching will be.

If an interesting point could be best made by language analysis, so be it. For example, pupils might want to say something interesting about the difference between humans and animals in Jekyll and Hyde. Doing so might involve looking closely at the language used to describe Hyde. I believe that this would be one of the rare cases where language analysis would enhance the exploration of a novel’s ideas. The key thing is not to make pupils stunt their own writing by stopping every few sentences to shoehorn in some tenuous bit of AO2 (analysis of the writer’s craft).

I think the most powerful units of literature for the purposes of imparting wisdom are, especially before sixth form, the novel and the play. Poetry can be an interesting stimulus for contemplating the ideas of a novel or play, but I do not think they can ever speak for themselves in the same way. Perhaps, then, examiners could reward links or allusions to poetry which complements the text, or perhaps not. The last thing we want is teachers forcing in some distracting poem because “the examiners love it when you bring in poems!”

On a similar note, exams should ideally ask about a central theme in the text, like “Is George a hero?” rather than something which could distract from the central point of the book like “How does the depiction of Curley’s Wife present ideas about gender?” Teach to the text, not to the test.

Teaching this subject would then involve teaching what the exam board thinks newspaper articles, leaflets and speeches sound like, what they define structure as, what they actually mean when they say “evaluate”, how many fronted adverbials to use in creative writing, what comparison means in Q2 vs Q4, what comparison means for the poetry unseen, the names of language features, how to say something about a language feature, and what a text means.

Spend all year reading three texts and having interesting discussions about them. Write some model essays about them. Maybe mention a few points about essay technique if they haven’t been covered in other subjects.

Exam 3 (Optional): Language Arts

Language analysis is a lot of fun, and so is creative writing, just in case I haven’t said that enough already. It is, however, no more vital to the raising of good people than History of Art. An optional subject would allow genuine language analysis to be taught and examined, without the lowest common denominator.

When examine?

A final question is when these examinations should take place. In other subjects, they take place at the very end of five years of secondary school. That’s a good idea, because you don’t want children to forget everything they learned last year. However, I think this situation is different. I actually think it might be counterproductive to have a “finals” setup. It would encourage the pressurised cramming and drilling of information, which isn’t really the point—the journey itself will be most powerful, not its reduction to flashcards and memorisation.

What if children wrote an essay in the hall in exam conditions every term? What if their grade reflected their average, or their median, or perhaps even the average of their highest Year 11 score with their highest previous scores (to keep them attentive when the hormones kick in). Some such metric could be worked out which, I’m sure, would be better than the status quo.

Indeed, there could be termly or yearly vocabulary exams, to make it impossible for pupils to shirk the reality that reading books is the only real way to improve their vocabulary. They would get the same message every year: reading equals success.

By the way, given the dissimilarity between these exams and normal GCSEs, maybe it would be better to accredit them in some other way. I certainly think, however they would be reported, they would be extremely valuable information for colleges, universities and employers.

At the moment, English is a monstrously nebulous subject. With all its vague and opposing strands, and the enormous advantage of having a good vocabulary, how do you actually make people better at “English”? I reckon these exams would allow it to become coherent. Teachers could teach the science of grammar and the wisdom of literature, safe in the knowledge that exam success would be best achieved by teaching something that’s useful anyway.

What is Worth Teaching? Stories

My last post argued that much of what we teach doesn’t do anyone any good (focusing particularly on English). I think there are things of enormous value that we are neglecting—not neglecting altogether, but which we have allowed to become periphery when they should be central:

Stories. We have been talking to our children for perhaps 100,000 years. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a fascinating book on this, if you can ignore the psychoanalytic claptrap. The stories we told them were rich with messages about how to stay out of trouble, be respected and know right from wrong.

I don’t know when we decided that the focus should not be on what it means but how the writer communicates it. Perhaps this was bound up in constructivism, postmodernism or skill-based pedagogy. I think it was an enormous step back towards the dark ages.

When Tony Blair said that his three priorities were “Education, education, education,” why did he care so much? Was it really that he thought the very fact of 50% of the UK having letters after their name would heal society? I doubt he was that shortsighted. The enormous, transformative power of education lies in the opportunity to break the cycle of low cultural, social and moral capital.

The most important thing for children to take from The Winslow Boy is the catastrophic ruin caused by telling a thoughtless, cowardly lie. It is clearly not the playwright’s use of stage directions or the way the servants’ diction reveals their class.

How silly is it that we push children to analyse the descriptions of the weather in Jekyll and Hyde when they haven’t yet grasped that this isn’t about potions and monsters, but about self-control and human weakness?

Who gives a monkey’s about the colour of Curley’s wife’s dress, if children have not fully understood the distorted, shocking heroism required in such a rotten and mean setting as that of Of Mice and Men?

Why are books so life-changing? Is it because of their dazzling metaphors, brilliant semantic fields and nail-biting foreshadowing? No. It’s because they put us in the shoes of another being for hours and hours. They lift us out of our reality and connect us to the wisdom of another.

We all know that, and yet we don’t seem to question that the exams, while they reward understanding of the text’s significance, sadly necessitate the dedication of most English lessons to the analysis of language, structure, or sometimes character (which, while closer to the mark, is still to some extent a distraction from the fundamental meaning of a text).

As I stressed in my last post, I love language analysis. Breaking down the intricacies of language and prolonged sessions of interpretative navel-gazing are a hell of a lot of fun. But this unparalleled platform—two core GCSEs—is crying out for something more significant than the writer’s craft.

In the five years of compulsory secondary education, most pupils probably cover two or three books, if that. Some might be taught as extracts. All of them will be butchered and ground out into neat, trite sausages of language analysis. We should teach dozens of texts, not stopping to dissect and write about every chapter, but pressing on and building momentum, until one day—who knows?—children might even have positive associations with reading.

Finally, it is worth confronting the unpleasant truth that not everyone can be good at language analysis. In fact, by its very nature, it has to have losers—just like getting an in-joke, understanding the obvious doesn’t count; we only accept as analysis those points which stand out as insightful beyond some basic level.

Compare this to the understanding of stories. Everyone can get something out of a story. Everyone. I’m sure we have all taught bottom sets and wondered what good it does them to make them fail slightly better at language analysis. I cannot think of a single pupil I have ever taught who could not learn a life-improving lesson from simply reading and understanding a story.

We shouldn’t be teaching skills (especially not useless skills). We should be teaching wisdom. We should be teaching knowledge which makes us considerate, fulfilled, happy, and human.

Next post, I will suggest what kind of exam might allow this kind of teaching.

What’s Not Worth Teaching?

Yesterday’s blogpost made the point that exam success alone doesn’t do any good. It’s only ever good for some people at the cost of others.

I think of it as a swarm of humanitarians trying to help a long queue of starving people. Each humanitarian is tirelessly pulling people out of the queue and moving them forward a few places. Although they are fixated on the queue, they do hand out some morsels of food (some more than others), which constitutes the only actual good they are doing, because, of course, the queue stays as long as ever.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there it is: we have two games. One (the queue or the exam success) will always have the same number of winners and losers. The other (the morsels of food or the quality of education) can be won by everybody.

What do I have in mind? What can we teach that is useful for everybody? In this post, I’m going to say what I don’t think is useful. Next post, I’ll say what I think is.

I think the usefulness of education could be thought of in three* ways:

  1. Economic usefulness (skills and knowledge which make people better at jobs)
  2. Social usefulness (skills and knowledge which bind communities together and allow them to get along)
  3. Personal usefulness (skills and knowledge which help us live happily, peacefully and wisely)

By these standards, I don’t think much of what’s in the exams is useful. I teach English. Maths teachers have told me the same about maths. Maybe the picture is different for History or Religion.

Take language analysis, for instance. I absolutely love language analysis, but it isn’t useful. I’ve been asking around, for about four years, what possible use it could be to teach children to write paragraphs analysing language and structure? I once received an answer: Language analysis is a transferable skill which can help people approach problems logically and detect fake news. It obviously isn’t, and can’t. I’m not even going to argue against it here, because, coming from Twitter, you will already know about the importance of knowledge and the problem of transfer.

Or take English Language Paper 2 Section B. Does anyone seriously believe that any editor in the history of journalism has ever said: “Oh you got full marks for the newspaper article you wrote in your GCSE? Well we don’t need to train you then!” Has anyone ever uttered the words, “Oh thank god you had four lessons on writing leaflets when you were 15”? If a job requires a skill like that, they will teach it far better than we can. Don’t even think about talking about sowing the seeds of journalistic zeal. It’s a GCSE. It’s industrial-strength zeal-killer. Wear protective clothing at all times.

We spend a lot of time teaching things which aren’t useful. Some of it (like language analysis) I love, but I readily acknowledge that it’s very unlikely to be any good to most of the kids I teach. A few might see books with new eyes, but frankly I think you can learn just as much from a book by reading it artlessly, without the dissecting eye of a student.

English has a rare platform: two core GCSEs. Someone high up has decided that English is really important, so it’s getting seven and a half hours of compulsory exam time. Language analysis is wonderful, but it’s not worth putting on that pedestal. It could be an optional subject for those who want to appreciate beauty and skill, just like History of Art. I love it, but it has no greater claim than an art historian’s love for his or her subject. Murder your darlings.

I suspect, as well as being rather bleak, this is all well-trodden ground. Or, at least, D H Lawrence seems to have trodden this ground a hundred years ago. So I’m going to say something positive before I finish. Here is one thing that would be worth teaching more of…

Grammar. It is ludicrous that grammar is so neglected at GCSE. Pupils can get by from Years 7 to 11 and get good GCSEs by the end of it, without really learning where to put an apostrophe, how to keep tenses consistent, whether to write “should of” or “should have” etc. But grammar is probably the most important part of English for businesses! How many jobs do not involve written communication with clients? For one thing, it’s embarrassing when a client is sent an illiterate email by one of your employees. More importantly, though, grammar is a social shibboleth. People make judgements about education and intelligence based on grammar, especially in the absence of credible exam data.

Finally, let me make it clear that I think lots of teachers do teach useful stuff when they get the chance. My fear is that a laser focus on exam success is making it harder to do so, because the exams are almost totally at odds with useful stuff. Most of the time, the most effective way to raise grades is probably to teach to the test in such a way that nothing genuinely useful is learned—in other words, to take shortcuts. Kudos to the teachers out there who don’t spend their careers taking shortcuts away from genuine education. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have exams which don’t incentivise those shortcuts? That’s the next post.

* I will consider a fourth: Academic usefulness (skills and knowledge which make people better at the pursuit of further knowledge). I haven’t included this, because the question then becomes: in what way is that further knowledge useful? Some may argue that knowledge doesn’t need to be useful at all; it is intrinsically valuable. Confronted with the question as to why the dates of the monarchs of England is more worth learning than the first 100 digits of pi, or the contents of an old phone directory, they may plausibly respond that some knowledge unlocks more knowledge. This argument seems internally consistent. It may be right. It comes down to a fairly dusty philosophical question of values, and my position, utilitarianism, comes in for a fair amount of ridicule. To me, it just doesn’t seem compelling that the point of teaching is to pass on knowledge which is totally useless, except in the pursuit of further useless knowledge. However, I know that many whom I respect would, if they read this, tut scornfully before returning to their studies of Norman fonts.

What’s the Point in Teaching? Not Exam Grades

I have heard it proclaimed as a rallying cry: we are going to do whatever it takes to get those kids to pass and it will change their lives. It’s a galvanising mission-statement. But it’s wrong.

In this post, I’m going to explain why there is a basic mistake in that statement’s form. Next post will be about why the content of exams, particularly the English GCSEs, is misguided.

To be clear, exams are good. The presence of exams is far more meritocratic than the absence of them. But good exam grades are not intrinsically good (i.e. good in and of themselves).

They are good, firstly, because of the advantage they confer to individuals in the employment market.

But this is a zero-sum game. I.e every advantage comes at the cost of an equal and opposite disadvantage. If one person moves forward five places in a static queue, then five people move back one place.

This is no more than common sense. Companies effectively use exam grades to rank job applicants. If everyone moves up, nobody moves up. This is entirely about each applicant’s position relative to the others.

Now it may be that the exam system claims to be objective. Before 2015, grade inflation might have fooled some into thinking that all could have prizes. In reality, people are inevitably going to be ranked in the employment market. If grade inflation muddies the waters, the ranking will just be a less meritocratic and transparent one. However, I believe the current exam system acknowledges the relative grading of candidates. We are told, for example, that 7s, 8s and 9s are reserved for the top 20%. But whether the grading system makes it upfront, the life-changing aspect of exam grades will inevitably be relative.

The problem should now be clear. Is it worth putting your blood, sweat and tears into pushing Alice up from a 6 to a 7, if all that does is push Ben down from a 7 to a 6? No.

Not unless Alice actually merits the 7 more than Ben does, of course. And this is the non-zero-sum game. We can’t increase the total number of 7s, but we can increase the total quality of education. So, we have two games:

  1. The zero-sum game: distribution of exam grades
  2. The non-zero-sum game: education

Sadly, I believe we focus on 1 (exam success) to the detriment of 2 (educational success). We focus on pushing exam scores up, with different teachers and different schools congratulating each-other on their exam successes, when those successes effectively nullify each-other. We do not stop to ask ourselves whether success in 1 carries across to success in 2.

I have not explained what I mean by “quality of education”. I am saving that for the next post (suffice it to say here that I think education should be useful for purposes other than passing school exams). However, it should be clear that 1 and 2 come apart. As an English teacher, I spend a long time teaching exam technique (how long to spend on Question 3, why you need to ignore the word “evaluate” in question 4, etc). This obviously does not promote any plausible conception of quality of education, merely exam grades.

Perhaps you agree that success in 1 is not intrinsically good, and is only good inasmuch as it promotes success in 2. But there is worse to come.

If you are promoting 1 without 2, not only are you not doing any good, you are actually doing harm. If the result is that you have improved your Alice’s grade, when in fact Ben was more educated (in the relevant way), then you have made the rankings more unfair!

What I Remember Doing in (Private) Primary School

Current discussion of learning through play/sitting down at a desk in Reception/Year 1 made me realise I have absolutely no idea what a normal primary school/EYFS experience is like. I only ever went to private schools. What I’m going to do is write down what I can remember from each year of my education, in the hope that people tell me which bits are atypical and what they had instead. At best, this might be informative from both ends. At worst, it will be a boring take on Adrian Mole.

Playgroup: I remember learning how a hovercraft works and clambering around on a climbing frame.

Reception: I remember sitting in rows. Now and then we’d go through to the next room for a practical. Once, the teacher dropped a ball and asked us to shout out what made it fall (I was the only one who shouted out “gravity” #proud). We also each got a bottle of milk quite regularly. As this must have been around 1995, I suspect this was a ‘turn the clock back on Margaret Thatcher the milk-snatcher’ selling point.

Y1-2: I remember distinctly not being allowed to go out to play until I’d finished my disgustingly overcooked “veggies”. Despite my pitiable efforts to conceal them beneath my knife and fork, the teachers would almost always spot them and make me sit there miserably in self-imposed haricot-vert lunchtime detention.

The same lunch hall was used for school-wide handwriting drills. The woman who ran these was terrifying. I believe her name was Mrs Bamforth and she could have given any of Bertie Wooster’s aunts a run for their money. Utter a squeak and you’d be standing up and blushing bright red in front of the whole school before you knew it. She used to literally drop a pin before we started to check it was suitably silent.

I don’t remember much from lessons, other than acting out a scene from prehistory. I was cast as a sabre-tooth tiger and interrupted the teacher’s explanation of tool use by jumping across the river and making the early humans scream, which was funny, apparently.

Other memories include being told off for staring out of the window during French, being chosen to go and fetch the junior hacksaws (#proud) and incessant fire-drills.

I think our tables were DT tables, arranged in groups, obviously. I think we were streamed.

Y3-5: I moved to a stricter school, in Cambridge. Line-ups in the yard before lessons. Big classes. Old wooden desks that slam when you open them to get your pen out. Scary teacher who slams his metre-rule on the desk when it’s not silent. Being made to stand outside the head’s office if you were silly (#terrifying).

I believe, in Year 3, we read “Danny the Champion of the World” and “The Hobbit”. We got told off for writing stories that were too action-packed. I remember one egregious example of mine being about a theatre which put on a production of Macbeth but someone called it “Macbeth” instead of “The Scottish Play” which led to a massive cigarette-and-gas-canister-related explosion.

The maths teacher must have been training because there was an observer at the back of the room all the time. All I remember from maths was writing the date out long-form and hating maths. I enjoyed science, though. We also had “creative writing” lessons in the IT room which was, I think, an attempt to teach us touch-typing.

There was CCTV, which I attempted to use as protection against being duffed up by the school bully, before it came apparent that the man watching the CCTV couldn’t care less. I remember making an impassioned complaint about the ethos of the school after someone went into the changing room and disembowelled my sports bag. The reply from my teacher was a dismissive “you don’t have a problem with the ethos of the school”.

I think the school must have realised its main accountability measure was the school play. There were endless rehearsals, overseen by an increasingly stressed headmaster. Honestly, we must have spent more time on the bloody play than any academic subject.

I remember quite a lot of colouring in Jesus in RS. I also remember studying St Lucia in geography. The teacher had taken it upon herself to make card passports branded “Pelican Airways” (our school emblem was a pelican drawing blood from itself). I found this use of her time so hilariously pointless that I got sent out for uncontrollably laughing.

Y6: New school! I got sent out from French for making annoying comments. In my defence, the teacher had arranged the desks in groups. We did Macbeth in English and the teacher was very nice about my alternative witches’ chant (#proud). The RS teacher taught us a lot about every religion and after impartially assessing the central tenets of each, I decided I wanted to be Jewish. The teacher was very pleased and invited me to her office to try some matzah bread.

DT and IT were great. I soldered and painted a spitfire with lights and noises controlled by a script I wrote on Microsoft Visual Basic (#proud). I also spent way too much time on projects on two-stroke engines and the development of ironclad battleships during the American Civil War.

There was a very charismatic drama teacher whose lessons on Great Expectations I remember vividly. We caused scandal during the school play by leaving our microphones on while backstage and talking about who fancied who.

Y7-8: New school! The Latin teacher was simultaneously the most insane and the most effective teacher ever. He regularly took a misbehaving child outside and bellowed. He had a different Blackadder-inspired innuendo for every facet of Latin grammar.

I was actually shocked by the poor behaviour. The boys were arrogant and disrespectful, especially in French. I got into a fight with one of the main culprits, which resulted in my suspension and his expulsion.

In English, we read The Cruel Sea and possibly Lord of the Flies. I was referred for extra handwriting lessons. In geography, we learnt loads. The teachers would put notes up on the OHP and annotate them while we annotated our copies. By the end of the year we’d have an absolutely enormous lever-arch file on everything from longshore drift to flood defences in Bangladesh. If we complained, he’d threaten to take us down to the cricket nets and bowl 80 mph at us.

We did end up doing a project (probably to kill time after the May exams). Mine was a survey of every shop on the high street and its wheelchair-accessibility.

Summary: As far as I remember, there was no learning through play. Teachers explained things, told us off, and made us learn. Was that basically the same everywhere?

How I Teach Root Words

I don’t know whether what follows is something that is already widely practised. My impression is that many of us teach form rather than content when it comes to root words. For example, we explain the idea of words consisting of prefixes and suffixes and we show the verb forms of nouns (and so on). I think that’s useful, but I also think we should teach root word content. I’m going to try to explain succinctly how I teach root words and what I hope to achieve by doing it. I have no evidence to support any of this, unfortunately, other than anecdotally.

How I Teach Root Words

I set aside around 30 minutes per week (luckily I had an hour dedicated to literacy) to:

  1. Test the class on 20 root words which they had been using Quizlet to memorise that week (in silence on scrap paper or in the back of their books)
  2. Mark the tests (either swap books or teacher quickly sorts tests into three piles (excellent, ok, fail) from at-a-glance performance.
  3. Take in marks (and action failure or success as appropriate)
  4. Introduce the next 20 root words and explain what they mean and why, exploring examples and the links between them.

This is similar to how, for eight years, my Latin and Greek teachers ensured I kept adding to my vocabulary. Step 4 is an addition in response to what Willingham says about the importance of meaning (as well as repetition) for memory.

I have twelve sets of twenty, which are available for use here:


I adapted these from a list available on the internet, and possibly originating at Michigan State University.

What I Hope to Achieve

  1. To lay the groundwork for easier vocabulary acquisition
  2. To add nuanced understanding of vocabulary
  3. To improve spelling

I suspect that vocabulary is a huge barrier to children understanding and enjoying what they read. There’s a little kick we get from being confident that we have correctly inferred the meaning of a new word from what we already know; there’s a little moment of frustration every time we are confused by a word or concept that a writer expects us to know. I hope that after this, children will be able to make sense of more of what they have read because they know 240 root words, and because in the course of learning those they were exposed to thousands of examples of English words where those roots bear fruit. I hope that these 240 roots will increase the rate at which they make sense of and remember new words because of the meaningful links they can make to their root word knowledge.

In addition, I hope that by seeing the history behind a word, they can add nuance to their understanding of it. For example, by knowing that lapid- means ‘stone’, they can see that ‘dilapidated’ is a good word to use about an old, crumbling house, but not a great word choice for describing (the only example I can think of is Moonfleet-inspired, sorry!) the contents of a coffin. Most of us know (whether or not we had thought about it until now) that dilapidation is something that happens to buildings, but not corpses. I imagine that some of us know that because we’ve seen the word used hundreds of times and built up a map of things it applies to. But some of us, including, I suspect, everyone educated before Latin and Greek were removed from the curriculum, know it because we see a root word within it. Word choices by many writers will have been shaped by a knowledge (and an expected understanding on the part of the readership) of Latin and Greek vocab.

Finally, by seeing words within words, children will, I hope, have more reference points when a spelling eludes them. I suspect that without Latin and Greek, I would be an abysmal speller.

Come to think of it, I don’t think ‘lapid-‘ is included in those 240 words… Which brings me to my final point: everyone is free to use or adapt those lists and I’d be happy to make any additions or corrections you send at me.