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How to be a Word Archaeologist

Building a brilliant vocabulary can be an exciting process of exploration and discovery - so let's present it that way to our pupils...
Image of Kelly Ashley (@kashleyenglish)

By Kelly Ashley (@kashleyenglish)

Last updated 19 August 2021

Main Image for How to be a Word Archaeologist

From the linguistic discovery of the Rosetta Stone to the mysterious uncovering of Sutton Hoo, archaeology holds a sense of wonder and fascination. But what would happen if we applied these principles of exploration and discovery to our word learning routine in the primary classroom?

The role of an archaeologist is to look for information, not treasure. This idea is foundational as we encourage children to become word archaeologists – digging up clues and connections between words and exploring new information. So, what might the goals be for our word archaeologists’ expedition?

Goal 1: Understand depth and breadth of word knowledge

First, it’s important to consider both breadth (the number of words we know) and depth (the amount of information known about these words) to build the linguistic ‘tools’ needed for our vocabulary expedition. By ‘digging up’ connections between words, we can build both breadth and depth of word knowledge.

Consider how the following levelled prompts could be used to think critically about the meaning of the word ‘expedition’ here – ‘The archaeologist went on an expedition to find information.’

  • Surface level - Do I recognise this word?

I’ve not seen this word before, but ‘tion’ is familiar.

  • Just below the surface - Can I can use the context to work out meaning?

I think that the archaeologist is going somewhere as it says ‘to find.’

  • In the depths – Can I connect this to other words that I know?

‘Tion’ is the same as other words I know such as ‘situation,’ ‘solution’ and ‘introduction’ and these words are nouns.

  • Word master - Can I choose and use this word confidently in a new context?

An expedition is a journey taken for a particular purpose (usually in science), but it can also be used informally as in a ‘shopping expedition.’

Goal 2: Do your research

Second, ensure that the vocabulary offer helps learners to retrieve words from memory for a range of purposes and in different contexts. Communication is the cornerstone – do your research by ensuring that words chosen for instruction are purposeful and that learners have opportunities to use language in authentic contexts as they read, write, speak and listen.

When deciding which words to teach, think about which will have the most leverage for communication. For instance, what words or concepts come to mind when you think about archaeology? Did you think of words such as: excavation, artefact, remains, find, dig, uncover, discover, ancient, curator, discovery, equipment, evidence, examine or site? What other words or connections came to mind? Connections are unique to the individual; think carefully about how you will unlock these associations in your learners.

To make new words memorable, find ways to connect the new (new words introduced) and the known (words or concepts that already exist in the learners’ long term memory). Download my simple ‘5 step criteria’ to use when deciding which words to teach.

Step 1: Are there any ‘anchor’ words to teach that are central to the idea you are developing?

Archaeology or archaeologist would be an anchor word in this context.

Step 2: What are the bigger concepts that learners already know about and how can the new words introduced be used to strengthen or connect these ideas?

Connect the words equipment, evidence and examine to science concepts.

Step 3: If choosing words within a specific text, are there any to chose that are central to comprehension?

Check out these fantastic books on the topic of archaeology: The Great Sea Dragon Discovery by Pippa Goodhart; Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons; The Street Beneath my Feet by Charlotte Guillian and Yuval Zommer and The Pebble in my Pocket by Meredith Hooper and Chris Coady.

Step 4: Is it likely that learners will encounter this word in other contexts?

The words remains, find and dig may be in learners’ word hoards as verbs, but we can explore how they are used as nouns in this new context.

Step 5: How will learners choose and use the new words they have learned to communicate?

Think about how to put words to work in authentic contexts to build word memory through reading, writing, speaking or listening.

Goal 3: Investigate word artefacts closely

Archaeologists take a 360 degree view of the development and behaviour of societies past and present by examining the language, culture, remains and physical characteristics of a particular people or time. The same principle can be applied to word study – give learners a 360 degree view of new words that have been chosen for instruction.

As part of my Word Power approach, I promote the use of ‘Power-Up’ strategies. Free information on these strategies can be found here. When investigating new words, use the Power-Up strategies as a menu to help learners observe, record and categorise connections.

A fun way to introduce Power-Up strategies is with a Word Cube (free download here. When discussing a new word (for instance ‘discover’), roll the cube to share thoughts using the following prompts:

DEFINE – Explain the meaning of this word in your own words. Now check the dictionary definition and compare.

To discover something means to find out something new.

REPEAT – Say the word several times and think about the sound you can hear.

Discover has 3 syllables – dis/ cov/ er.

ANALYSE – Can you spot any prefixes or suffixes? What is the root word? Can you see any word parts that look familiar?

‘Dis’ means ‘not’ and ‘cover’ is the root word. Perhaps it means ‘not covered’ or revealed/ found. It’s similar to the words ‘uncover’ and ‘recover.’

LINK – What do you think about when you say this word? What personal links can you make?

Explorers discover new things on their adventures. They make discoveries.

COMPARE – Does this word make you think of any other words? Think of related words, synonyms and antonyms.

Synonyms (words that mean the same) – find, locate, unearth; Antonyms (words that mean the opposite) – conceal, hide, overlook; Related words – investigate, explore, discovery

APPLY – How can this word be used in another context? Try using the word in a new sentence.

Yesterday, I discovered that my car was out of petrol.

Another strategy to jazz up the word learning routine is the use of a Word Matrix to explore links between root words, prefixes and suffixes. Start with the root word in the centre column of the matrix, for example: cover. Now consider which prefixes could be added to the root and add these to the left column – dis-, re- and un-. Finally, think about which suffixes could be added to the end of each word in the right column - -y, -s, -ing, -ed, -able.

Your pupils can see in the word matrix how the verbs discover, recover and uncover can be changed to nouns (discovery, recovery, discoverable, recoverable) by adding different inflectional suffixes. We can also see how the verb inflections –s, -ing and –ed can be added to change the tense of the verb (e.g. discovers, discovering, discovered). Word matrices are an invaluable tool for helping to expand vocabularies as they make connections between words visible for the learner.

Goal 4: Document and share your findings

The final step in any successful word archaeologist’s journey is to record and share findings with a wider audience. Effective communication is the goal of this process. ‘The ability to communicate – to say what you want to say and to understand what other people are saying – is fundamental to life chances.’ (Jean Gross, Time to Talk)

Encourage learners to ask questions about new words and concepts as they develop their ideas within a language-rich, communication-friendly classroom environment. Give them opportunities to talk, share, discuss and debate for different purposes. Build up visual displays of new language learned to help strengthen connections between the new and the known. Provide and share a range of reading material to build up background knowledge and further strengthen the foundation for word learning. Charge and recharge understanding over time to build word memory.

All words have the potential to be powerful. Just as archaeologists piece together mysteries of the past, so can our learners piece together their knowledge of words and how they work. How will you support your budding word archaeologists to unlock the mystery and wonder of language?

Kelly Ashley (@kashleyenglish) is a freelance English consultant based in Yorkshire and author of Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction (2019). For more information, visit here.

Do you want to find more effective vocabulary teaching strategies for your classroom?

If you’re looking for more support to improve vocabulary teaching in your school take a look at Building Brilliant Vocabularies, a brand new video training course from Plazoom and the National Literacy Trust that will help you embed effective strategies throughout your school. Find out more here.

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