Recently, I came across a resource for teachers that demonstrated strategies for vocabulary instruction. They used the word <enormous> as an example.

One of the steps in the instructional process was to have students analyze the word <enormous> by syllable, a common practice in systematic reading instruction. So the recommendation was to divide this word based on the way we often pronounce it, like this:

e / nor /  mous

This is intended to help students pronounce the word.  But notice that dividing the word this way gives us units that don’t make sense here. There’s a word nor but is it related to enormous? Is that a suffix <mous>?

And with vocabulary instruction we assume that students don’t know the meaning of the word <enormous>, so another step in the process was to give a definition and use the word in a sentence. There were other steps to help students memorize the spelling and meaning of this word as a random, isolated word.

But as I looked at this example, I wondered to myself, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to just look at the morphological structure and connect the meaning to the orthographic denotation of the base? And what’s the base in this word anyway?”

I know the word <enormous>. I can define it, spell it and use it in many different ways. But I’d never in my life noticed the base in this word until that moment.

Take a look at the morphological structure of this word:

<enormous e + norm + ous>

Do you see some meaningful units here? The base element <norm> exists as a free base in English: “The norm in education is to teach isolated words.”

Do you see a structural relationship with the word <normal norm + al>? “It’s normal to wonder why we never learned about morphology in our own education.”

This base <norm> has an orthographic denotation of “standard, pattern, model.” The prefix <e> is an assimilated form of <ex> which in this word has a sense of “out of.” And the suffix <ous> forms an adjective.

So <enormous> is an adjective, and the morphological units in this word provide the denotational sense of “outside of the standard or pattern.” All of that is present right there in the spelling of the meaningful units (morphemes) in the word.

Here’s what Eymonline.com shows us:


You can see that when this first came into English, it had a sense of abnormal in a bad sense. Ten years later, it began to be used to mean “extraordinary in size.” And it’s connected in meaning to a number of interesting and complex words.

norm matrix

Notice how many words can be formed from this matrix. All of these are connected in structure and meaning to the word <enormous>:
























We can even look at the word <ginormous> at Etymonline.com and learn about words that are blends of two words:

ginormous EOL

As my friend Aviva likes to say, “Buy one word, get lots more free.”

So rather than teach one isolated word and hope that students can remember its meaning and spelling, look at how much richer it is to study a word family.

When I shared this matrix for <norm> with several of my students, none of them were really comfortable with the meaning of “norm” but all of them knew “enormous” and  “normal.” It’s often true that longer words are more familiar to students and when students see a word family, they are able to understand more words, including words used in very specific contexts. As they encounter them later they can connect them to a broader meaning than the specific one being taught in a particular discipline or setting.

And rather than teach kids to think about pronunciation first, we should help them see structures in written words as the first step to understanding them, so they don’t experience what I did with the word <enormous> for my entire life: focusing on structures that distracted me from the morphemic units that actually carry the meaning of the word.

It is so much easier for a student to understand and remember the meaning at a deep level AND remember the spelling of the word <e + norm + ous> and ALL of these other words by analyzing this word morphologically rather than by syllable. All of the units of meaning (morphemes) in the construction of these words make sense and reoccur in many words. They may be pronounced in various ways, but their spelling and meaning are consistent.

But even more importantly, by examining this word in the context of its morphological family, students learn about the logical and coherent system of spelling that is present in every single word in English.

Please contact me here with your questions, comments, and reactions.

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