Recently, I’ve been under some pressure to engage in a dialogue about the value of etymological study. The question was posed by Jan Wasowicz, the owner of a commercial list-serve from which I was booted a few years ago. Several people who are on the listserv contacted me to ask me to weigh in. Over the past 10 days or so, I’ve decided that I prefer to study etymology than to defend the study of etymology, but out of respect for those who asked me to respond, I will.
Jan Wasowicz asks, “What recent research do we have to support etymology instruction, the teaching of declarative knowledge about the history and origins of words to students, as an effective method for improving reading and spelling performance? Has there been a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology? Has the effectiveness of teaching etymology been studied with students who have language-based reading and writing problems?”
So, I’m going to let Jan do her own literature review; real scholars who have questions like this do the research themselves, pretty easily, rather than posing it as a challenge to a bunch of other people who mostly do not study etymology themselves. A quick Google Scholar search reveals several articles addressing the role of etymology in literacy instruction — I’d encourage Jan to have a look at the work of Victoria Devonshire and Michael Fluck especially.
Of course, many, many scholars encourage the study of etymology in literacy classrooms, even with learning-disabled students: Barbara Foorman, Louisa Moats, Jack Fletcher, Malt Joshi, Rebecca Treiman, Suzanne Carreker, and Marcia Henry, who’s on the listserv herself and who, when asked to weigh in, deflected and asked me to weigh in. But what Jan wants is not the opinion of experts who have taught thousands of teachers and thousands of children; she wants “a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology” — as though it is possible to study phonology, orthography, meaning and morphology in an etymologyless vacuum. It’s not. That’s like trying to study lava without involving volcanoes.
Jan goes on, “I have to evaluate this method [sic] based on everything I know – from the published research and my clinical training – about how students with language-learning deficits process information and learn most effectively.” It’s really interesting to me that she starts the dialogue by asking for “recent research … to support etymology instruction,“ and ends it with her own opinion, uninformed by the actual emergent research that is, in fact, out there on etymological study.
I’m a researcher, but not the kind of researcher, apparently, whose researched opinion might be valued in this exchange. My research does not seek funding to pit groups of schoolchildren in unwitting competition against each other, some in the intervention group with etymology, and some in the control group without etymology, to prove the exact alchemical mix of “multilinguistic, connectionist word study methods” [sic] that might render them literate. Rather, I prefer to do the necessary research to address the very real, non-hypothetical questions that very real, non-hypothetical children and teachers actually have about language. This kind of research — studying words themselves rather than which specific ways of studying words win — is unconstrained by the standard reading-science shackles. Rather than reading science, it’s just science. You know, where you have a hypothesis, investigate it, and deepen your understanding of the system you are studying. And anyone can do it, including dyslexic children and non-native speakers. No one needs a PhD, a lab, government funding, or a control group to study the rich relationships between words.
While there’s no control group to hear from, here’s what people say to Doug Harper and me in response to etymological study:
- “I hope to be able to attend next year with reports of etymology alive in my teaching. Thank you!”
- “So engaging — both Doug, with humor and intellect, and Gina — WOW!!”
- “It was another revelatory weekend of learning!”
- “Excellent, wildly informative seminar.”
- “The workshop was outstanding!”
- “This was fabulous.”
- “Five stars!”
When was the last time most teachers felt that way about their professional development opportunities? Here’s my personal favorite:
- “Can’t wait for Etymology III!”
Well, the wait is over. Etymology III is almost here.
So, I’d like to invite Jan Wasowicz, the owner of the SpelTalk listserv, to attend the Etymology weekend in March as my guest, free of charge, so that she can conduct her own research. I invite her to learn what etymology actually is, how it informs the writing system, and how teachers, tutors, and clinicians all over the world are using etymology to bring words alive and to make sense of written language for thousands of scholars of all ages, including many who have “language-based reading and writing problems” (as opposed to literacy problems that are somehow not language-based?). Jan is very concerned because, in her estimation, people who are teaching etymology are doing so “without any research to support this as an effective instructional method for struggling readers and writers” [sic]. But etymology is not an “instructional method.”
Here’s the thing that’s critical for Jan and anyone else who claims to rely on science to understand: while there may be a limited number of double-blind studies on the benefits of studying etymology specifically for children with learning disabilities, there’s exactly no research proving that it is not beneficial. So at this point, if I had a dog in this race, he’d be winning.
Jan, we’ll save you a seat.