One of the most efficient ways to build vocabulary is through the lexical matrix.

Let’s take a look at some examples of this using the base element <ject>.

At the beginning of last year, I thought about the structures of written English as building from a letter to a paragraph. If it is on a continuum, I will start at a certain point along the continuum, and the discussion can move across it depending on what we are talking about:

letter <-> morpheme <-> word <-> phrase/clause <-> sentence <-> paragraph

If I have a base element, a morpheme: <ject> I can pull several words: injection, reject, objection, subjected etc…and start at the word.

Or, I can start at the morpheme just introduce the meaning of <ject> as ‘throw.’ I can say “Today we are going to learn about the base element <ject> which is denoted ‘throw’ and all of the words we learn today will have something to do with ‘throw.'” It is explicit. I can add to this by making a gesture like miming throwing a football. I can have students repeat orally the denotation. I can show them that <ject> is from Latin. I want to do all of these things and I want students to have a firm grasp on the meaning of the base element. I would do all of these things if I introduced the word reject.

If I start at the word, I introduce reject with a standard connotation in student-friendly terms: To reject something is to throw it back, or dismiss it. Next, I will have several examples, non-examples, pictures and sentences using the word. Anita Archer and Kate Kinsella both have great resources and videos on how to teach complete words.

This can be a routine, a structure, a systematic, and a multisensory way to teach a vocabulary word. This is no different than the “structured literacy” methods used in programs based on Orton-Gillingham. There are some key differences though, which standard vocabulary approaches fail to recognize.

I will have my students write sentences (clozed and not) using the words. I want the repetition to help students store the words in memory. I want my students to practice talking to each other using the words in phrases and sentences both orally and in writing (necessities for English Language Learners and struggling readers and writers).

The difference with Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is that there is a hypothesis about the structure of the words that can deepen understanding. There is also an innate link with SWI to grammar and the language structures of English. There is no syllable division into phony parts of words, or breaking words apart. These are things I have not seen in other programs or approaches.

After the phrase and sentence work, I will ask students to make a hypothesis of the morphological structure of the word: <re> + <ject> -> <reject>. If a false hypothesis occurs: <rej>* + <ect>* -> <reject>, I can always ask what the sense of each morpheme is. Either students will discover the sense of the morphemes or they won’t, and in either case we will discuss the meaning of morphemes in the word reject.

Next, we have a few different routes to continue the discussion. We can do some more word sums with additional suffixes:

re + ject + ed -> rejected

re + ject + ion -> rejection

re  + ject + ing -> rejecting

re + ject + s -> rejects

From these, we can build a matrix:

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A second, slightly different route, is to give the matrix to the students and then have them build more words using the matrix (I get the matrix from Gina Cooke’s Matrix Study Sheets, or make my own on the Mini Matrix Maker). We can synthesize (from the word sum to the complete word) or we can analyze (from the complete word to the morpheme). I never talk about breaking words apart. That is not what analyzing a word is.

Next, we can create new phrases or sentences with our syntheses and talk about the part of speech:

She rejected his proposal for a date. (The <ed> here is acting as the simple past tense)

The rejection was too much for the boy to take. (The <ion> is derivational and makes rejection a noun).

The boy rejects the girl. (The <s> is third person singular inflectional suffix, as opposed to the common nominal plural <s>).

He had rejected the peace offer last night. (The phrase had rejected could be analyzed here to show the past participial <ed> suffix).

We can then discuss the etymology of the words and their relatives: reject comes from Latin reiectus. The Latin <us> is a suffix, but the <i> is an interesting topic of discussion. We can talk about the <i> and <j> being historically the same letter. I always know what level we are discussing as a class. The continuum is my compass.

We can also talk about the relatives of reject. (I do this on a different day after I have already introduced the words for the week):

reject ~ joist ~ jetty ~ gist ~ adjacent ~ …

There is a lot you can do with one word. This helps keep the pace of the lessons brisk. I try to discuss at least four words a week. I do this on Mondays and take the rest of the week to include several different ways for students to practice using the word, as well as including the etymology piece. Again, spaced practice and repetition help solidify the vocabulary.

While there is much the same about teaching vocabulary through SWI, there are some major differences, namely:

1) No syllable division in the practice of pronouncing words. Regardless of pronunciation, the words are spelled with regular and consistent morphemes.

2) Placing morphology as the foundation for discussion (not as a subsidiary). This includes the scientific method as students form hypotheses and test these to falsify assumptions.

3) Selecting ONLY words connected through morphology and etymology for the week, as opposed to a theme topic (i.e. climax, problem, solution, introduction) or words based on “sounds” (i.e. play, stay, may, bay, day).