Exposing students to etymology

April 19, 2017
Community-based learning helps middle school students learn etymology

By Jess Dankenbring, ’17

Every single word in the English language, from “geology” to “dictionary,” can be broken down into parts, each with a history. Most of us don’t realize that the vocabulary we’ve accumulated over the years actually opens us up to the wonder of etymology. But not middle school students at an after-school program in Northside Richmond. They’ve been getting lessons from five classics students enrolled in a Latin and Greek language course at the University.

“These five students had to figure out how they would present the whole subject of etymology —  breaking down words, seeing words made up of parts, like prefixes, roots, and suffixes,” classical studies professor Dean Simpson said. “And as they’ll tell you, they had to figure it out on the fly sometimes. They made use of what they’ve been learning about the Latin and Greek roots in English to make it accessible to middle school students.”

Simpson’s class arose from techniques used in British school systems. He heard how etymology was used to help students improve their reading, and that it was particularly effective for students who were a grade level behind. He thought it would be an interesting way for his students to make a contribution to the Richmond community while also putting what they had learned into practice.

And like in the British schools they were emulating, the Richmond students could see the results of their efforts.

“The difference between the first and last days was so significant,” Emily Gove, ’17, said. “The first day they wouldn’t even talk to us or lift their heads up. There was a day when a boy walked in and asked what class it was, and when he heard what is was he left. He didn’t know what he was missing.”

Interactive games helped pique the middle school students’ interests. In one, Richmond students turned the classroom into a game board. Students took a step forward for a right answer, or a step back if they encountered a pre-placed bomb or roadblock.

The students developed the games using small blocks and pieces of paper that the kids could physically piece together.

Simpson said the activity with the most impact was a combination of a matching game and a relay race. Students had to run back and forth in a relay race while collecting matching pairs of roots and English words. They competition was fierce, but there was also learning on both sides.

As the weeks went on, the Youth Life students were not just more engaged and learning the information, but the Richmond students better understood how to tutor effectively.

“In the beginning it was kind of slow because we had just given them a lecture, and we didn’t really do that much with the games,” said James McGuire, ’20. “But then we got to know them better and developed the games with the blocks and the cards. That really brought out their personalities.”

By the end of the semester, the students were full of enthusiasm, even correcting the Richmond students on occasion. They no longer needed the reward of candy to participate.

“I think in terms of our own education, it helped us review all of the words that we had learned so that we could teach them to the kids,” said Pebbles Daez, ’19. “It strengthened our own memory, which helped on tests and papers.”

The program worked so well for both groups that the partnership between Youth Life and the classics department will continue. In the fall, Latin 102 students will head to Youth Life for more activities and instruction.

“It was so much more than I’d hoped for,” Simpson said. “My students had to be so quick about recognizing what was a match or helping somebody along, saying what word has the same root. They developed a knack for making use of a skill: seeing words made up of parts.”