The Reading Room – December 2023

Etymology: What is it, and how can teaching students about it strengthen their literacy skills?

“Etymology, which is one of the most systematic, enjoyable and effective ways of enhancing word power, will increase the learners’ ability to figure out unknown and difficult words with ease and without continual reference to unabridged sources.”

-Masoud Hashemi and Masoud Aziznezhad / Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences Elsevier 2011 

Hahaha!!!!!! All kidding aside, it’s very easy to mix up these three terms as they are so similar. In this month’s Reading Room article, we will be discussing ETYMOLOGY

Etymology is the scientific study of the origin or history and derivation of words as well as how words have changed throughout history.  Even words like OK have a definitive etymology.  OK actually comes from a parody spelling of “all correct” as “orl korrrekt,” which was then shortened to OK.  When you know the meaning of a Latin or Greek root, prefix, or suffix, you can apply that knowledge to a host of other words and figure out their meanings as well.  Therefore, there is a direct link between etymology and vocabulary development. Understanding the etymology of words can also improve reading comprehension, writing abilities, spelling, speaking, and communication skills.  The more your students are engaged with words at this level, the more knowledge they will pick up about language.

Let’s look at some ways etymology can really improve our students’ reading and writing skills.  When it comes spelling, understanding etymology helps to make it easier to spell certain words.  This would be based on the language of origin.  Knowing how different languages work with spelling makes it easier to figure out complicated spelling.  For example, if a word has Dutch origins, there might be several vowels, and Latin-based words are made up of prefixes and suffixes to create a specific meaning.  As far as vocabulary goes, when we learn a new word, we don’t often know how to use it in a sentence.  Understanding the etymology of the words makes it easier to understand because you know its context.  It is also a way to remember what words mean.  Understanding etymology and how it can be used in our everyday life is important to building that strong vocabulary that we want all of our students to use. 

“For instance, a word that isn’t commonly used but conveys a common idea is quixotic.  It comes from the character Don Quixote and describes someone or something that’s a romantic, idealist, or visionary but isn’t realistic or practical in their ideas, much like the character.”

– What is Etymology? Microsoft 365, 2023

Therefore, if you know the story of Don Quixote and understand his character, then you know it is a fitting word to use to describe someone like that.  Idioms and cliches are also easier to understand when you know the background of the phrase. 

“Saying something like, ‘Break a leg’ before somebody performs in a play might sound like you’re wishing ill upon them.  However, the phrase comes from the early days of theater, where actors who weren’t set to perform had to stay behind a line offstage called the ‘leg line.’ If they didn’t perform, they didn’t get paid.  If an actor got to break the leg line and get on stage, then they would get paid for their work.”

– What is Etymology? Microsoft 365, 2023

Etymonline is a free app that I have all my students put on their devices.  There are so many fun and interesting ways to engage students with etymology. Getting students deeply involved with language boosts their overall literacy skills.  There are games that target etymology, and we have included some of those resources at the end of the article.  Students can do group projects researching the etymology of provided words and present them in creative ways such as acting or drawing or both.


Etymology Rules

Etymology Games and Fun Activities

Pete Bowers – Structured Word Inquiry (SWI)

SWI Introduction

Make Spelling Joyful Through Scientific Inquiry

How Morphological and Etymological Families Work

What is Etymology?  Microsoft 365

For questions, please contact:

Chris Fox –, Jessica Powell – 

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