Words, vocabulary and morphology

Primary English: Knowledge and Understanding - Medwell Jane A. 2014

Words, vocabulary and morphology


A teacher must:

3. Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge

have a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas, foster and maintain pupils’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings

demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship

demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics.

4. Plan and teach well structured lessons

impart knowledge and develop understanding through effective use of lesson time

promote a love of learning and children’s intellectual curiosity

contribute to the design and provision of an engaging curriculum within the relevant subject area(s).

5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils

have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these

have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

8. Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

take responsibility for improving teaching through appropriate professional development.

Curriculum context

National Curriculum programmes of study

This knowledge is designed to underpin the teaching of the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 programmes of study for English, which state, for example, that pupils should be taught

in spoken language to:

✵ use relevant strategies to build their vocabulary

in reading to:

✵ apply their growing knowledge of root words, prefixes and suffixes (etymology and morphology) both to read aloud and to understand the meaning of new words they meet

✵ develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by

image discussing word meanings, linking new meanings to those already known

image using dictionaries to check the meaning of words that they have read

image discussing words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination

✵ understand both the books they can already read accurately and fluently and those they listen to by:

image drawing on what they already know or on background information and vocabulary provided by the teacher

and in writing to:

✵ add prefixes and suffixes to spell longer words

✵ use knowledge of morphology and etymology in spelling and understand that the spelling of some words needs to be learnt specifically

✵ draft and write by:

image composing and rehearsing sentences orally, progressively building a varied and rich vocabulary

image selecting appropriate grammar and vocabulary, understanding how such choices can change and enhance meaning

✵ evaluate and edit by:

image proposing changes to grammar and vocabulary to improve consistency, to enhance effects and clarify meaning

image recognising vocabulary and structures that are appropriate for formal speech and writing.

Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Learning Goals specify that, by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, children should:

✵ extend their vocabulary, exploring the meanings and sounds of new words;

✵ hear and say sounds in words in the order in which they occur;

✵ use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words.


The sheer breadth of English vocabulary gives it great richness and flexibility. In teaching children to use and improve their use of English, one of our concerns is to improve their range of words, and the flexibility and appropriateness with which they use them. It is also useful to study words and their origins so that children can understand the language they use. To do this you need to know something about the development, change and selection of English vocabulary. The formation of words is also a part of the grammar of English so that, although grammar is often considered at ’sentence level’, parts of grammar are concerned with what happens within words.

The origins of English vocabulary

It is important that teachers know something about the history of English for two reasons; first, so that they have the background knowledge to do some word study with children and, second, so that they can understand why English is such a complicated and at times seemingly illogical language.

English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages (along with German, Dutch, Icelandic and the Scandinavian languages). Evidence for the relationship between English and other languages can be seen just by looking at simple names for numbers — the sort of activity you might do with children.


Look at these number names:


What evidence do you find for a common original language?

Which languages would you identify as closest to English?

Which languages do you think might have influenced English?

English has been shaped by invasion and settlement of the British Isles and this is evident in its vocabulary, which has benefited from three broad influences:

✵ Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse (the language of the Vikings);

✵ French;

✵ Latin (with words from Greek coming through Latin).

The following chart gives a rough chronology of English:


Anglo-Saxon and Norse influences on English vocabulary

When the Celtic inhabitants of Britain were driven back by Angles, Saxons and Jutes around 450AD very few Celtic words entered the language of the invaders. In modern English a few river names such as Dart, Exe and Nene and the element coombe in place names (Ilfracombe) remain as the only evidence of the Celtic past. The dialects of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes gave rise to Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, the language of England between about 450 and 1100.


Look at these versions of the Lord’s Prayer. Use of written English was quite different in Old English times so few comparable texts exist. This is one text which can be used for comparison.

Old English (eleventh century)

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

(Corpus Christi College MS 140, ed. Liuzza (1994))

Middle English (1400AD)

Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi name, thi kyngdoom come to, be thi wille don in erthe as in heuene, gyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce

and forgyue to vs oure detis, as we forgyen to oure dettouris,

and lede vs not in to temptacioun, but delyuere vs from yuel, amen.

(Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.751, cited in Lollard Sermons, ed. Cigman (1989, p. xxiv))

Early Modern English (The King James Bible, 1611)

Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heauen.

Giue vs this day our daily bread.

And forgiue vs our debts, as we forgiue our debters.

And lead vs not into temptation, but deliuer vs from euill: For thine is the kingdome, and the power, and the glory, for euer, Amen.

(Holy Bible, 1611)

Modern English (Book of Common Prayer, 1928)

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

✵ What letters can you identify that have not come into Modern English?

✵ Which words can you identify in the Old English version? Are they particular types of word?

Old English words exist in most important word categories in Modern English. Many of the main content words have Anglo-Saxon origins:

Nouns: father (faeder), king (cynig), sun (sunne), day (daeg), wife (wif), heaven (heofonum), Monday (monandaeg)

Adjectives: evil (yfele), cold (cald), busy (bisig)

Verbs: fight (feohtan), forgive (forgyf), live (libban)

These structure words, which hold sentences together, are also Anglo-Saxon originally:

Personal pronouns: I, you, he, she, we, us

Demonstrative pronouns: this, that, these, those

Auxiliary verbs: can, shall

Conjunctions: as, and, but, so, then

Prepositions: in, on, under, over, down, by

Adverbs: when, while, where

Finally, although most rude words related to the body and bodily functions come from Anglo-Saxon (arse, shit and fart, for instance), they were originally acceptable words and we have no evidence that speakers of Old English swore or used profanities!


✵ Sort the Old English words below into food, questions and prepositions. A version of this activity could be used with children.

✵ What is it that allows you to translate the words into Modern English? What does that tell you about the relationship between speech and writing?

Hunig, bread, hwy, aefter, hwaet, butere, haer, mete, milc, hwaenne, behindan, beforan.

The Vikings, who raided England from about 780 to 1014, then conquered and ruled for 14 years, brought Old Norse to England. It was quite similar to English and the inhabitants on both sides of the Danelaw line could converse with one another. The languages eventually became one and English acquired a range of new words and word parts from Old Norse. These exist in many modern English words — for instance, the words window, fellow, leg, loan, skill, skin, skirt, get and thrive. Some of the more harsh sounds in spoken English originate from Norse: skirt, kid, get, egg.

Norman French influences on English

The Norman invasion of 1066 brought with it a French-speaking ruling class. French dominated the judicial, legal, church and military systems for 300 years but did not obliterate the English language, unlike Anglo-Saxon which had marginalised the Celtic languages. Although the kings of England spoke French for 200 years after the invasion, within a few generations it was the dominant, but second, language for the middle classes. The peasants and many of the middle classes spoke English. This meant that there was a long period (150 years) from which little written English literature remains, but it was also a time when the language itself underwent significant changes. It is estimated that 10,000 French words and phrases passed into English, over 70 per cent of them nouns, including the following: authority, bailiff, chancellor, peasant, prince, realm, reign, jail, jury, judge, priory, religion, repent, heresy, archer, army, captain, combat, enemy, garrison, appetite, bacon, clove, supper, toast, veal, art, beauty, chess, fur, rhyme, romance, vellum, volume, alkali, arsenic, copy, gender, cellar, curtain, pantry, amorous, allow, to have mercy on, to do justice to, to hold one’s peace, and to make a complaint. The words here should give you some idea of the social spheres of influence of the Norman rulers!

Although many Old English (OE) words disappeared, many new French (F) forms exist alongside older alternatives and taking slightly different meanings — for example, doom (OE) and judgement (F), hearty (OE) and cordial (F). In this way, the resulting language, Middle English, which was spoken and written from 1100 to 1450, was more extensive, richer and far closer to Modern English than Old English. You can see this clearly by revisiting the Middle English version of the Lord’s Prayer that we looked at earlier.

Three major changes in the Middle English period have affected all Modern English spellers. First, Norman scribes introduced French spellings of English sounds. For example, qu- for cw-, queen for cwen. Norman scribes also used c before e instead of s, so sircle became circle and sell became cell. New letters appeared — k, z and j came into much more common use. v began to be used either to represent the phoneme /v/ (haue for have) or the modern English vowel sound /u/ (vnder for under). The resulting mixture of French and old English spelling conventions is one reason why English spelling is such a trial today.

Second, Middle English lost its inflections (mostly endings). Those of you who have studied German or Latin will remember that words in different positions in a sentence have different endings. This was true of Old English. For example:

Nominative (subject



Accusative (object



Genitive (possessive



Dative (doing or giving



Loss of inflections made Middle English much easier to spell. The few inflected endings that remain in English (plurals and verb tenses) were very much simpler than Old English. These inflections, many of them using suffixes, may seem diverse and complicated but there are actually very few when compared with languages like French and German. The essential inflections in English are:

✵ -s for the third person singular of a present tense verb or plural noun;

✵ -ed for the past tense;

✵ -t, -en or -ed for a past participle (spelt, eaten, reserved);

✵ -ing added to verbs to make the present participle;

✵ different forms of the verb to be: am, are, is, was, were, (have/has/had) been, (will) be;

✵ irregular noun plurals like sheep, children;

✵ the dozen or so strong verbs (which change a vowel for the past tense, rather than add -ed. For example, swim—swam.).

The relative neglect of English as a language of power during Norman domination gave the language a chance to become simpler and more user-friendly. In terms of current day spelling we have this to be grateful for.


These inflections can present young children with particular difficulties in everyday use so you may wish to pay particular attention to teaching children the rules for using them.

Many phonics schemes include the spelling of inflected endings at the higher levels, although they are not really a phonics issue. However, these inflections are important spelling patterns, so the patterns, exceptions and use should be taught.

Third, towards the end of the Middle English period, there was a very significant change in the pronunciation of all seven long vowels, which was not fully completed for 200 years. This meant that English was pronounced very differently in Chaucer’s time to Shakespeare’s time, and this is reflected in how English is written down.

By the end of the Middle English period, English was a strong language used throughout the country (although in many different dialects) with all the factors in existence that would lead to a standard English for the first time. London had emerged as the political and commercial capital with a large number of chancery scribes (the forerunner of the civil service) standardising government and commercial copying. The central midlands dialect (written by Chaucer) was not only influenced by the London dialect but was widely spread through the Wycliff bible and the preaching of the Lollards (see Cigman, 1989). Moreover, mass migration from the midlands had a definite effect on the London dialect. When Caxton set up his printing press in 1476 it is not surprising that he chose Westminster and the London speech as his norm — it ensured his popularity with his chancery neighbours and began the spread of a standard form of English in Britain.

Standardisation and Latin and Greek influences on English

The Early Modern English period, from 1400 to 1800, saw an explosion of literature and printing. It has been estimated that 20,000 books were published. This led printers like Caxton to make decisions about language — spelling, word choice and expression. For instance, Caxton wrote of his difficulties in deciding between egges (a northern form from Old Norse) and eyren (a southern form from Old English). In this case the northern word won. Caxton and other printers, many of Dutch origins, made these decisions on a pragmatic basis and a consensus eventually arose. But examination of early printed manuscripts shows that Caxton and other printers were extremely inconsistent in their spelling (broke and boke, axed and axyd, on the same page, and final -e used haphazardly and intermittently throughout the publication), punctuation and use of capital letters. Indeed, much later, Shakespeare still used four different spellings of his own name.


Look at the Early Modern English version of the Lord’s Prayer that we considered earlier.

✵ How are v and u used?

✵ What are the rules for capital letters?

✵ How would commas be used differently today?

Shakespeare’s work alone had a huge impact on the lexicon (words) of the English language. Some of the words first recorded by Shakespeare have survived into Modern English: accommodation, fancy-free, lack-lustre, laughable, submerged. His idiomatic expressions are common today: ’what the dickens’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor), ’a foregone conclusion’ (Othello), ’hoist with his own petard’ (Hamlet), ’cold comfort’ (King John), ’love is blind’ (Merchant of Venice), ’a tower of strength’ (Richard III) and ’it’s Greek to me’ (Julius Caesar) are all everyday expressions. We would expect any educated citizen to use or understand these phrases and yet such citizens are often unaware of their literary origins. Of course, many words Shakespeare used have not passed into Modern English. We can be pretty sure no one uses tortive or unplausive today because they are not in our dictionary or spell-checker. We must also remember that Shakespeare did not spell words in the same way as we do now.


Around 1600 Shakespeare used these words. What are modern equivalents and which letters are used differently?

dutie, vs, greeuously, vpon, enuy, outliue, thou, villaine

Shakespeare’s contribution to English is immeasurable not only in literary terms, but also as a linguistic innovator. It would be worth researching Shakespeare’s English with Year 6 children on language study grounds alone.


Below is probably one of the most popular pieces of Shakespeare’s work for study with Year 6 children because it is interesting in quite clear rhythmic and rhyming ways. Look at the vocabulary and identify the archaic words. Then look up their meanings in a dictionary or etymological dictionary. With a class you would want to consider how words were added together to make words like hedge-pig, and their subsequent development.

Enter the three Witches.


Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.


Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.


Harpier cries, “Tis time, ’tis time.’


Round about the cauldron go; In the poison’d entrails throw. Toad, that under cold stone Days and nights has thirty-one Swelter’d venom sleeping got, Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.


Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.


Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.


Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, Witch’s mummy, maw and gulf Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark, Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark, Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of goat and slips of yew Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse, Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips, Finger of birth-strangled babe Ditch-deliver’d by a drab, Make the gruel thick and slab. Add thereto a tiger’s chawdron, For the ingredients of our cauldron.


Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.


Cool it with a baboon’s blood, Then the charm is firm and good.

(Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 1—38)

The vocabulary of English underwent great change in the Early Modern period of English. From the start of the Renaissance around 1430 to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when writers modelled their writing on classical literature, words were borrowed from Latin and Greek at an amazing rate. Some scholars wrote books entirely in Latin (Sir Isaac Newton, for instance) and teachers tried to teach grammar school children in Latin. Shakespeare mocked the pedantry of those who talked in Latin in Love’s Labours Lost.

English changed constantly throughout the Early Modern period and a great deal was written about the changes. Capital letters were debated and although authors such as Butler and Pope used capitals for most nouns, eventually a standard (proper nouns, important nouns and the start of sentences) was established. Punctuation developed a near modern form at this time. Changing from the virgule (/), point (.) and colon (:) used by Caxton in the fifteenth century, the semi-colon emerged and was used interchangeably with the colon. Turned double commas (speech marks) emerged and the use of apostrophes changed. At the end of the sixteenth century lists of correct spellings were produced (Mulcaster’s contained 7000 words) and vowels came to be spelled more predictably. The Middle English use of v and u was sorted out in relation to sound quality, rather than position in the word. By the end of the eighteenth century notions of correctness were current and incorrect spelling was stigmatised for the first time. This is very significant for you as a teacher. Correct spelling is, even today, taken as a mark of an educated person, but learning to spell correctly involves learning a very inconsistent system.

Until around 1650 there were some Latin borrowings in English literature but in the second half of the eighteenth century there was an explosion of Latin words. Latinisms were used as fashionable, sophisticated, educated and generally ’better’ than older, indigenous words. When Wordsworth stood up for ’Language such as men do use’ and wrote his poetry in quite ordinary words he was criticised by contemporary critics for not using words of sufficient dignity. The result of this period has been the inclusion of many words of Latin (L) and Greek (G) origins. There are also parts of words, including prefixes and roots of words (discussed below in the formation of words). Because these prefixes are so common it is quite important that children learn about them. They give children another key to understanding and so help reading and comprehension.


a, an (G) a-, an-, not un, -less, without (agnostic, amorphous)

ad, a (L) ad, towards, against, at: (adhere, adjacent, admire)

amb(i) (L) ambo, ambi, both, around (ambidexterous, ambiguous)

ante (L) ante, before (antecedent, antediluvial, antenatal, anteroom)

ant(i) (G) anti, against, opposite (Antarctic, antibiotic, antidote)


What is the difference between the prefix ant- in anteroom and Antarctic?

What is the difference between the prefix hom- in homogeneous and homicidal?

You will need to consult an etymological dictionary or a large dictionary such as the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Here are some more Latin and Greek prefixes you might want to study with children.

Look up the word of origin, whether the origin is Latin or Greek, and add some words in which the prefix is used.


What prefixes can you identify that indicate the numbers one to ten? Complete the list:

uni-: unicycle, uniform


Roots derived from Latin or Greek:

acer(b), acid, acri, acu, (L) acer, sharp, bitter (acerbic, acrimony)

amic, amor, imic, (L) amor, love (amateur, amicable, inimicable)

anim, (L) animus, mind (animated, animosity, magnanimous)


Here are some more roots. Use a dictionary to look up the origins (Latin or Greek) and origin word, a modern meaning and some example words for each of these roots.


The following words are of particular use to you in the study of literature. Look them up and note them.

Origin word





cris, crit




loc, loq



onomato, onomast


romanc, romant

thes(is), thet


If homicide is the killing of a person, what are fratricide, parricide, suicide and matricide?

If bigamy means being married to two people at one time, what is meant by monogamy, polygamy and hypergamy?

In doing these activities you may notice that the last two, which require reasoned investigation, are more memorable than simply looking up words. This should influence you when setting tasks for children.

Other influences on English vocabulary

English has continued to develop since the eighteenth century and Modern English has not always been the English of today. A look at Austen’s novels, for instance, shows us how English words have continued to change in meaning and use. For instance, ’A supposed inmate of Mansfield Hall’ was not detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure as ’inmate’ did not signify imprisonment as it does now. Some additions to the lexicon of English reflect Britain’s imperial past:


bungalow, chutney, dungaree, jungle, pyjamas, shampoo, gymkhana


kangaroo, boomerang, dingo


apartheid, trek, safari, voodoo


slogan, clan

Native American

caucus, pecan, muskrat, terrapin, igloo, pow-wow


blarney, brat, whiskey

Others simply reflect the spread of people and influence:

Scandinavian languages

fiord, krill, ski, slalom, floe, geyser, sauna


mandarin, tea, yen


adobe, armada, mosquito, plaza, cockroach, canyon, rodeo


delicatessen, noodle, kindergarten, spiel


vodka, sputnik

It must be remembered that the formation and spelling of these words is quite arbitrary. They have entered English through the (sometimes incorrect) pronunciation of many people and contain letter combinations that can be unusual in English spelling. In doing so, these words (and there are thousands of them) add to the rich mix of spelling conventions that make English so hard to spell.

The study of the origins of words — etymology — is included as a useful part of language study. To work with children on this you need a good etymological dictionary (see Further reading). These are not easy to use and you need to make sure you understand the conventions and abbreviations. In practice you may find a good (large) dictionary such as the Concise Oxford Dictionary provides enough etymological information for the sort of study you will do with children. The Oxford English Dictionary online is a counsel of perfection for teachers but might overwhelm children. It contains more information about each word and its origins and use than you could ever want. As a teacher you will find two specialist dictionaries useful: a dictionary of place names and a dictionary of proper names. These are fascinating fields of interest for children. Study of names and places is an important way of making language study personal for children. Some medieval names told a great deal about the owners: John Rex (a king), William Neuman (a newcomer to the area), William de Paris. These names have often survived in different forms. De Paris has become Parish, Neuman is usually Newman, Walsh comes from the Saxon word for foreigner, or Welsh. Brown, Green and Red tell us about a personal characteristic of our ancestors. Cooper, Butler, Clark, Smith and Thatcher tell us about professional groups. Palmer refers to someone who has made a pilgrimage.

Place names are even more interesting because they tell us about social structures, people, landscape and history. Most place names have an Old English element, which might be a word borrowed from the Roman usage or Celtic place name, a saint or deity’s name, a person’s name or a reference to the landscape, as shown in the following table.



Look up the place names on the map below. What do they tell you about the settlement and history of the area? This sort of activity is interesting in most areas.


Despite the commonness of Old English origins, place names tell us something of the history of the places because they contain parts of words from different times:

✵ Roman — -cester, caster, chester (fort or town), strat, street, port (gate or harbour);

✵ Saxon — -borough, -bury, -burgh (fortified place), -hooe, hough, how (rounded hill), -ing (people or family of), wic (farm), ham (homestead or village), ey, y, ea (river), leigh, ley (clearing), tun, ton (farmstead);

✵ Viking — -by (farm or village), thorpe (village or hamlet), fell (hill), kirk (church), garth (yard);

✵ Norman French — additions of castle, abbey, bishop’s, King’s, tower, forest, mount, market;

✵ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — spa (referring to a town with a spring).

On the map on the previous page, notice that there are lots of villages, and some towns, with the -ton ending. This is a Saxon place-name element, and originally meant ’enclosure’ or ’farmstead’. Thus ’Leamington’ meant ’the farmstead of the Leamings (a family)’. You will also find ’Southam’ = ’homestead in the South’, and ’Wappenbury’ = ’Wappa’s burgh’ (fortified place). These are all Saxon name elements, suggesting that this area was largely populated by Saxons. Yet amongst these names, you will also find names ending in ’-thorpe’ (e.g. Eathorpe), a Viking place-name element meaning ’village’, and ’-by’ (Rugby), a Viking element meaning ’farm’. This mixture of place-name origins makes sense when you learn that this part of the country (Warwickshire) was very much border country after 886AD, when King Alfred agreed a treaty with the Danes that fixed the boundary between England and the Danelaw along a line roughly the same as the course of the old Roman road, Watling Street (the modern A5 follows this line today). So, part of the history of the area is embedded in its place names.


Think about some place names in the area where you live. Can you spot any clues in these names to the history of the area? The following website will help you to investigate these names:


Adding new words to the language

This chapter has considered the origins of words in the English language and two principal ways in which words have entered the English language: borrowing from other languages and sound changes. There are also some other processes that have caused new words to enter English and you may want to investigate some of these with children.

Back formation is a very common way of using the formation of one word and applying it to other words to make new words.

work (verb)



(noun suffix)



(agent noun)


(agent noun)


(noun suffix)




So we had television before to televise, glazing before to double-glaze.

Folk etymology is a sort of mis-analysis, where obscure morphemes are misinterpreted in terms of more familiar morphemes. For instance, salt-cellar comes from the French word salier (salt box), but when the use of salier was lost, people started to use the form sellar, which became cellar. Salt-cellar has no connection with basements. Other examples are sparrow-grass for asparagus, nephew-tism for nepotism and helpmate from helpmeet, in which meet meant ’suitable’.

Function-shift is a process whereby one part of speech (word class) is shifted to become a different type of word. So, today, laugh, run, buy and steal have become nouns as well as verbs. Likewise, position, process and contrast have become verbs as well as nouns.

Acronyms are quasi-words formed using the initial letters or sounds from a phrase to make a word. NATO means the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Laser is light amplification through the stimulated emission of radiation.

Blending is a very common practice of combining two parts of a word. Smoke and fog make smog. Breakfast and lunch make brunch. Chuckle and snort make chortle. Not all of these words remain popular and skort — skirt and shorts — has not really displaced culottes!

Clipping is the practice of shortening words. Dormitory, advertisement, laboratory, examination and taxicab are obvious examples, having become dorm, advert, lab, exam and taxi.

All these processes of vocabulary change usually incur some resistance, with people denouncing new words as ’wrong’ or ’ugly’. This is a normal reaction to linguistic change. It has been recorded in discussion of Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English and continues to occupy newspaper space today. We may find the expression ’patently obvious’ an unnecessary repetition (it is patent or obvious, it need not be both) but we also know that it is common, accepted and, therefore, correct usage. The Latinate use of patent (from pateo — I lie open) is uncommon and rather pedantic. This is the way of English language change. It is inexorable, despite the natural conservatism of English speakers. It is the work of teachers to recognise and teach accepted English usage and to encourage children to look at the origins and formation of English words.

The structure of English words

Morphology, the study of the structure of words, goes hand in hand with work on word origins. Children need to learn to break down and assemble words because this helps them to read and understand words and to be able to understand the grammar of sentences. To teach this you need to understand basic morphology.

Morphology cuts across the study of words and the study of grammar because morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in words, may indicate meaning and may also indicate how a word functions in a sentence.

In English, morphology includes ways of describing the structure of words as diverse as an, books, get, unexceptional, ironing board and antidisestablishmentarianism. The function of the parts of the words in these examples varies. Some morphemes are used to build up the words and some are used to indicate grammatical contrast. Linguists study two fields of morphology:

lexical or derivational morphology studies how words are built up out of new elements (un ex cep tion al, for instance);

inflexional morphology studies the way words vary through form to express grammatical function (the -s, in books, for instance).

For this reason, morphology has an important part to play at the grammatical or sentence levels of language as well as in spelling.


Some words cannot be broken down into smaller grammatical parts and consist only of a single morpheme: car, a, person. These words have only a root (sometimes called a stem or base part). Although we can say how many syllables or vowels and consonants they have, these words have only one morpheme because a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. In English there are two main types of morphemes. Free morphemes are those that can stand alone (cat). Bound morphemes are those that never exist on their own, but are only attached to another word (-s, -ed, -ing). Although you might use the term morpheme with children, you would not usually distinguish between free and bound morphemes. However, in English we often add meaningful units (morphemes) at the beginning or end of a morpheme — affixes. Prefixes go before the root (or stem) and suffixes go after. These affixes mean we can create hundreds of words, including the word often said to be the longest in the dictionary: antidisestablishmentarianism.


Divide the words below into their component morphemes:





Prefixes and suffixes have different roles in English. Prefixes simply allow the creation of new words (a lexical function) and you can see that even the prefixes in the list of Latin and Greek prefixes above contribute to thousands of words. Suffixes have two different roles. Some suffixes have the lexical role of allowing the creation of new words and changing the function of the word (-ness, -ship, -ism). You may hear these called derivational suffixes, but this is not a term you would use in a Key Stage 2 class. Other suffixes are grammatical in function, such as the plural -s, past tense -ed and comparative -er. These inflexional suffixes (inflection, inflected endings) show what a word does in a sentence.


The research team led by Terezhina Nunes and Peter Bryant has established through a series of research studies that explicit knowledge (and teaching) of the morphemic structure of words can have many benefits for aspects of children’s literacy, both in terms of their reading fluency and comprehension, and in terms of their spelling accuracy. In their book (Nunes and Bryant, 2006), they outline the research studies they carried out and discuss the implications for teachers of their work.

The teaching strategies which they found to be productive included:

✵ Analogy tasks, in which children were given one pair of words (for example, ’read’ —’reader’) and asked to produce the missing word to complete the pair ’magic’ —’?’.

✵ Counting the number of morphemes in particular words. E.g. How many morphemes are in ’unforgettable’?

✵ Putting morphemes into categories, e.g. sorting words into those that contain suffixes that form ’person words’ (act-or, hunts-man, spokes-person, art-ist) and those with suffixes that form ’other words’.

✵ Subtracting morphemes from pseudowords. E.g. What jobs do these people do on Mars? — ’spamters’, ’montists’.

Derivational suffixes

The 322 derivational suffixes are added to words to change the function of the word in a sentence. Some of the most common are listed below. It is important for children to study the way these suffixes work and the spelling conventions that they use.

✵ Suffixes to make adjectives from nouns:

-ed, blurred, pointed

-esque, Kafkaesque

-ful, beautiful, useful

-ic, Celtic, dynamic

-al, accidental, operational

-ish, foolish

-less, careless, feckless

-ly, friendly

-y, sandy

✵ Suffixes to make nouns from adjectives:

-ity, stupidity

-ness, carelessness

✵ Suffixes to make nouns from verbs:

-age, wastage

-al, denial

-ee, payee, employee

-er, adviser

-or, executor

✵ Verb makers:

-ate, orchestrate

-en, chasten

-ify, beautify

✵ Adverb makers:

-ly, happily

-ward(s), homeward

✵ Concrete noun makers:

-eer, racketeer

-er, teenager

-ette, usherette

✵ Abstract noun makers:

-dom, serfdom

-ery, drudgery

-hood, sainthood

-ing, farming


To what categories do these suffixes belong? Use examples to find out.


Inflexional suffixes and formations

Although most inflections (inflectional suffixes, inflected words) were lost in English after the Norman Conquest, the few that remain are an extremely important part of our grammar and it is vital that children can form them correctly and use the correct word so that it has the right person, number and gender for the sentence. In this section we outline the inflections still used in English, including inflexional suffixes. Studying inflections and looking at the conventions governing them helps children to get them right.

In nouns, only two inflections have survived to the present day:

✵ the -s marking the possessive (genitive case) (the girl’s hat)

✵ the -s marking the plural (hats)

These inflections survive but are not always necessary for meaning and in some English variants they are dropped (two pound fifty is as comprehensible as two pounds fifty). However, standard written English requires the -s. There are spelling conventions governing the addition of inflected -s.


Sort these plurals into groups based on spelling. What ’rules’ can you derive?


It is important to note that spelling rules can relate to the position of vowels and consonants and also to other sounds, not just writing conventions.

For adjectives, English has inflected suffixes relating to the comparative (-er) and superlative (-est) forms. Adjectives with three or more syllables are preceded by more and most.













more beautiful

most beautiful


more interesting

most interesting

There are a few exceptions but these are very common words: good, better, best; bad, worse, worst. For children, it is important to get these right in written English; when there is any doubt, children will find the comparative and superlative forms are given in the entries of most good dictionaries.

Some English pronouns, the personal and relative pronouns, are also inflected. They do not change form just by a change of ending, but have different forms depending on the use of the pronoun in sentences.

✵ Personal pronouns:

Subject (nominative case): I, you, he, she, it, we, they

Object (accusative case): me, you, him, her, it, us, them

Possessive (genitive case): mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs

✵ Relative pronouns:

Subject (nominative case): who

Object (accusative case): whom

Possessive (genitive case): whose

The grammatical issue for children is choosing the correct pronoun to agree with the noun in terms of function in the sentence (case), person (first, second, third) and number (singular and plural).


It is important to show children how verbs are customarily set out, as this makes it easier to remember the idea of first, second and third person and singular and plural forms.

Verbs in Modern English retain few inflections. When set out in the customary way to show person and number (singular and plural) we can see only the -s of the present third person singular remains (replacing the -eth in telleth, sayeth, doeth of Chaucer’s day).





(I) run

(we) run


(you) run

(you) run


(he, she, it)

runs (they) run

Some verbs are, of course, irregular and are inflected not through suffixes but through changes of consonant.





(I) have

(we) have


(you) have

(you) have


(he, she, it)

has (they) have

Others have a more irregular formation. Of course, these are the most commonly used verbs and present an important challenge to young users, who need to get them right in person and number. This requires an implicit understanding of person that is quite sophisticated and many teachers find it much harder to discuss subject— or object—verb agreement than to exemplify it because of the very abstract nature of the concepts.





(I) am

(we) are


(you) are

(you) are


(he, she, it) is

(they) are

The past tense and past participle of many English verbs (called weak verbs) take an inflected -ed suffix. When adding this suffix, again there are spelling conventions which as adults we take for granted but which children benefit from considering explicitly.





(I) jumped

(we) jumped


(you) jumped

(you) jumped


(he, she, it) jumped

(they) jumped


Group these words by spelling group for their past tense forms. What is the ’rule’ governing double letters?










Some verbs (called strong verbs) form their past tense and past participle by changing a vowel in the stem (or base): ride — rode, break — broke, do — did — done, see — saw — seen.

Most verbs form their present participle using the inflected suffix -ing: running, jumping, being, etc. Again the addition of -ing is governed by spelling conventions.


What ’rules’ for adding -ing can you infer from these words?

running, jumping, being, holding, planning, saving, waiting, smiling

These inflections are an important part of the grammar of English and when you teach them to children it is essential that they understand how each word indicates meaning in the sentence, how the words change depending on function in a sentence and how to spell the words. This means that teaching inflections is a sentence-level activity because it is teaching grammar, but it is also a word-level activity because you need to teach the spelling conventions that accompany many inflections.


image There are a great many words in English, with new ones entering the language all the time. This change is inevitable and adds flexibility and variety to language.

image Historical change, particularly due to the invaders and settlers of the British Isles, has had a huge influence on English words. Etymological dictionaries can be used to trace the origins of English words.

image Standard English, including standard spelling and punctuation, is a relatively recent development and correct spelling was not established until the eighteenth century.

image The origins of proper nouns are a particularly rich source of information about language, people and places in English.

image English words are built up from morphemes, including prefixes, suffixes and roots (or stems).

image Derivational suffixes change the function of a word in a sentence and children need to learn the spelling conventions governing the addition of these suffixes.

image Although largely lost from Old English, a few inflections remain in suffixes and spellings. Children need to learn these and the spelling conventions governing the addition of -s, -ed, -er, -est and -ing.


English is acquiring new words all the time. Here are just a few words that are now an accepted part of English but that were unknown 30 years ago:

✵ internet;

✵ spyware;

✵ memory stick;

✵ blog.

These obviously relate to new technologies. Other words, such as twitter and tweet, now have different and very specific meanings in their technological usage.

A useful way of raising your own awareness of new words in English is to make a note of words as you come across them which seem unusual to you. Technology is a good place to begin, but another, very easy place to start is in your local coffee franchise! Frappuccino, tazo, or latte may be new words to you, and tall and grande may be familiar words used in different ways.


Bryson, B. (2009) Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. London: Penguin. This book is a light-hearted look at the English language.

Crystal, D. (2nd edn) (2003) The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of The English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This volume is a truly superb mix of sound information about English and linguistic trivia. It is accessible, good value and beautifully illustrated.

DfE (2013) Teachers’ Standards. London: DfE. (www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/208682/Teachers__Standards_2013.pdf)

Hoad, T. (ed.) (1993) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mills, A.D. (ed.) (2003) The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newby, M. (1987) The Structure of English: A Handbook of English Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunes. T. and Bryant, P. (2006) Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes. Abingdon: Routledge.