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Getting to the root of meaning – Entertaining Etymology

  • Curriculum
  • Teachers
Mary Myatt 23 February, 2019

Getting to the root of meaning – Entertaining Etymology

 There are four year olds who are fluent in dinosaurs. Some of them even know that dinosaur comes from the Greek for scary lizard and can tell us that tyrannosauros rex means tyrant king lizard. So what?

 I reckon it’s something we could be capitalising on – children’s interest in and playfulness with big words. Something happens along the way where we feel that we have to water things down, make them accessible, instead of giving young people difficult words and talking to them about where they came from. Not just the definitions, which only take us so far, but also the roots of the words, which are usually from Latin and Greek. In every curriculum area there are concepts and key ideas which pupils need to grasp and to use with confidence.

 What I’m arguing for is some light touch attention to etymology – the root meaning of words. This takes it to the next level from definitions, which are important, but which only take us so far. The deal with etymology is that in going back to the origins of the word, we are creating more secure understanding both of the purpose and meaning of the word. Work on etymology creates both a deeper connection with the word, and provides a ‘basket’ which links to the concept. This basket can hold a lot of information that supports pupils to make connections and see the bigger picture.

 To take some examples: in maths, if pupils know that the root of isosceles is equal legs (isos = equal; skelos = leg) they have a firmer picture of the triangle’s features. And when they meet ‘isos’ elsewhere, they will have a hook into understanding the meaning e.g. isotope, isometric. Another example: helicopter has the roots which mean spiral (helix) and wing (pteros). And funnily enough the same root at the heart of pterodactyl.

 There are pupils in year 1 who are learning about Christianity through the key concepts of ‘incarnation’ and ‘salvation’. They need to know that a fundamental Christian belief is that god became human, in the form of Jesus. As they work out where the word incarnation comes from: in = in; carnis = flesh, their work on the nativity and Christmas is both deeper and more coherent. And in learning about Easter, they are more likely to understand the symbolism of eggs if they know that for Christians, Jesus’ death also represents new life. Not only can they cope with this, they are eager to do this level of work. It both simplifies and deepens learning.

 Teachers do not need to be experts in Latin and Greek themselves to do this. What they do need to do is ask a few questions: where does this word come from I wonder? Who would like to find out? Then this is discussed at the start of the next lesson.

High challenge, low threat, interesting work for pupils, less for teachers.

 Mary Myatt