Word formation is an important aspect of learning and teaching English vocabulary, especially for advanced English majors and teachers of specialised schools. If you’re teaching or preparing for Cambridge English exams (from B2 First to C2 Proficiency), you should be familiar with Part 3 of the Reading and Use of English paper, where you have to complete the gaps in a text by forming appropriate words from the stem words.
As adapting authentic texts to create this type of task is often a complicated and painstaking process, we tend to teach and test word formation in a narrower, simpler context (e.g. sentence completion, multiple choice, matching). Here is an example from the Olympic Contest for Advanced English Majors (2019, Grade 10).
Teaching and testing word formation in this way may help learners review and extend their vocabulary more quickly but would not allow them to demonstrate their lexical resource, knowledge and understanding of language beyond sentence level (at text or discourse level)—an important testing focus of the Use of English paper. All too often such convenience also leads to misunderstanding and misuse of the task.
Study the word-building test item below.
Parenting characterised by acceptance and firm control is associated, for adolescents, with enhanced school performance and general psychosocial ……… . (JUST)
The context and the target language are appropriate for advanced learners, but the stem word is not appropriate in this case. Failure to study the stem carefully (and because of the superficial judgement that these two words bear a resemblance in spelling) often leads to the presumption that just and adjustment come from the same root, and that adjustment is formed by adding the prefix ad- and the suffix -ment to the stem just (though, according to some sources, adjust “might be influenced in form and sense by folk-etymology, as if from ad– + iustus ‘just, equitable, fair'”).
Another problem to consider is the prefix ad-, which is often used to intensify the core sense of the root or to denote different ideas; it has several variants, depending on the spelling and the core sense of the root. It would be impossible and overwhelming for teachers to teach all of its variants and ‘patterns’. It would also be impossible for learners, even at advanced levels, to be able to produce the target language or to form new words just by knowing the meaning of this prefix.
Note that even at C2 Proficiency level, the task is never meant to test learners’ knowledge of word origins or etymologies, even though understanding of these areas would make learning word formation more meaningful as well as help learners recognise and recall word families more efficiently.
Here is another case study.
In our new climate of national ……… , wealth and all its trappings seem available to anybody determined enough to have them. (FLUENT)
It’s true that learning word roots, affixes, and combining forms can help learners unlock the meaning of many English words. For example, Latin fluere (to flow) is the source of more than 200 words (derivatives and compounds included), including affluent, influence, influenza, influx, fluid, superfluous. It would be possible for advanced English majors to recognise the meanings of these words in clear contexts, but not quite so in this productive setting, given the significant shift in the meaning of the root.
Affluent was originally used to describe water either flowing towards a place or flowing freely without any restriction. It later came to mean ‘abundant’ and then ‘wealthy’, a meaning which dates from the mid 18th century.Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins
Without such knowledge, learners would find it very difficult to produce the target language using the stem word, and you have to consider this difficulty when writing word-building test and practice items. Again, the prefix af– in this case is a variant of ad– and can cause even more difficulty or confusion for learners.
Another relevant example is the stem reign, based on which there are more than 100 derivatives and compounds. Not many advanced English majors are able to notice that the Latin root regere ‘to govern, rule’ is the source of many words like regal, rector, regime, regiment, and perhaps much to their surprise, region, regular, royal, rule, and many more. Apart from the shifts in meanings, the middle of these words adds or changes spellings and sounds (internal changes), making the recognition and word-building task harder even for high-level learners.
Therefore, if you’re writing and using discrete word-building tasks and items to prepare your students for the Word Formation paper, it is important to think carefully about the aims and the target language of your lessons. With a group of advanced English majors, are you using simple (sentence-based) word-building tasks to:
- check/test learners’ understanding of important aspects of word formation (e.g. affixation, spelling/internal changes, compounding, shifts in meaning, semantic and syntactic constraints, etc.)?
- draw learners’ attention to affixes and derivatives in a systematic way, and encourage greater accuracy and appropriacy in the productive use of word parts?
- develop learners’ awareness of common productive affixes in different parts of speech?
- develop learners’ awareness of predictable ‘patterns’ (and exceptions) of word parts?
- develop learner’s sensitivity and ability to choose between the derivatives they’ve seen before, where their knowledge of word families was still incomplete, and new related words they’ve just learned?
- extend learners’ vocabulary through new words in authentic texts (e.g. buzzwords from newspapers)?
- provide exam-style practice that will help learners with Part 3 of the Reading and Use of English paper?
- help learners explore other aspects of word formation (e.g. conversion, blending, clipping, back-formation)?
- test learners’ knowledge of word formation from prescribed or pre-taught wordlists?
- or simply to help learners keep a record of derivatives and combinations?
Here is a sample word-building task that has a clear aim and appropriate target language, from the book Cornucopia Word Formation 2.
Try to plan your lesson more effectively, with appropriate sequence or progression from controlled, to semi-controlled, and eventually to free practice. Instead of ‘prescribing’ wordlists to learners and asking them to memorise all the word families, you should encourage them to make more efforts to understand and discuss the processes of word formation involved (word level). To make the word-building task less of ‘testing’ and more of ‘teaching’, you can also add more usage notes and contexts to the gapped sentences (sentence level), and include activities that allow learners to appreciate and reflect on the language they’ve learned (text level). Assigning advanced English majors to write an article or summary-response essay, for example, would be far more practical and meaningful than just handing out ‘fill in the blanks’ exercises based on lists of words in isolation. Here is a sample headword-based lesson.
It is estimated that English native-speaking university graduates know about 20,000 word families, including both active and passive vocabulary. Learning word families would learners access to a wider range of language and context, but advanced learners need not only range but also depth. With a cornucopia of resources, how can you help advanced English majors use different word forms with depth and to make them an active, natural part of their language?