Applying (some of) the 7 strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary in the MFL classroom

by senorcordero

I was lucky enough to see Alex Quigley present for our Academy a couple of years ago now, and there was something in his presentation that just made perfect sense to me as an MFL teacher. I was still fairly new at the Academy where I now work, and still felt time pressures of hurtling full speed through a textbook to cover the then new AQA Spanish spec in two years. A year later, we turned to teaching the GCSE course from Year 9, allowing us more time to really delve deep into the content and skills required for the GCSE. However, even having taught a three-year GCSE course, rather than the two-year course, we still had a huge deficit in reading skills. Something had to be done. Coupled with the Covid crisis and the need to create the ‘recovery curriculum’- I feel like the strategies Quigley presents are so beneficial to expanding the lexicon of our students when applied in the classroom – hopefully improving scores on the reading exam and expanding student knowledge at a greater rate. In this blog, I will look at four strategies that are easily applied to the MFL classroom, with examples, that I believe are arguably more useful than any ‘recovery curriculum’.

Before we start exploring…

Like a lot of MFL teachers out there, I started out in the period of activities, fun and progress in the lesson being the main measures of how much learning was taking place. No diversions were permitted – if this were to happen, that would inevitably result in a poorly-graded observation. For these strategies to work, it has taken me to move schools and rid myself of that mentality through the help of an amazing faculty and teaching and learning team; and to accept that delving deep into the nuts and bolts of a text/transcript is incredibly beneficial in terms of building resilience and reading ability. For these strategies to work, I really believe that this notion of deep learning has to be adapted and that we have to ‘forgive ourselves’ for offering students opportunities to explore the building blocks of words and related vocabulary. At the end of the day, as per the book, I want my students to be coleccionistas de palabras.

Four strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary in the classroom

Quigley outlines seven strategies of improving student ability to explore unfamiliar vocabulary in the classroom. They are looking at: word parts (morphology); word families; word histories (etymology); spelling (orthography); words with multiple meanings; synonyms and antonyms, as well as connecting to context. The four I’ve chosen to look at are: morphology, word families, etymology and looking at context.

Strategy #1: Morphology (word parts)

Morphology is all about looking for units inside of full words that add individual meaning to a word. An example in English being contraflow. In this word, we can separate the verb to flow and the prefix contra. From the verb to flow, we get that the word is about movement; but coupled with the prefix contra, we have the added meaning of moving against something – going against the normal flow of traffic.

What is useful about morphology is that, especially in a lot of languages, you can easily derive several verbs from the original verb you give. What is also extremely beneficial is that you can instruct students that these verbs, especially if the original verb, such as decir, conjugates in an irregular way, that the derived verbs will also follow that conjugation pattern. An example from the verb decir in Spanish below:

Using morphology to give related verbs

This can be very useful, especially with A Level, when students are regularly faced with more challenging texts and a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary in their first novel in the target language. Here is an example that I have used when exploring Ramón J. Sender’s Réquiem por un campesino español:

To assist when using morphology in the classroom, ask students to look for words that they know within a word. Then ask them to look for any prefixes that could be attached to the beginning of the word they already know and ask what sense it brings to the new word. Students will often give a poor translation, but it demonstrates they have the sense of the word. For instance, for camposanto, they will often say sacred land or holy land. At this point, it is down to us as teachers to ask: “So, what could ‘holy land‘ be in the context of this book. This will often guide students to the right answer.

Strategy #2: Word families

For word families to be successful, it’s about looking at suffixes, and what they tell us about what group of words they belong to. A classic example from French might be ‘-erie’ – which can often indicate that a word is a shop. Here is a list of common suffixes (by no means exhaustive) that I provide students with in Spanish. There is always going to be the odd exception, but as a rule of thumb, it works well:

A common list of suffixes I provide my students with to aid with decoding

When it comes to unpicking vocabulary in the classroom, I ask students to look for the principal unit of meaning, and then ask students to couple with what suffix usually means. Here’s an example I have used in a literary text:

What I also believe is incredibly important, and something I would never pause to do in my early career is to provide similar words that come from the same word. A great one that often works is asking students to give or to define the related verb after providing a noun or adjective, such as having given students mejor (better), taking the time to write mejorar on the whiteboard and asking students: “now we know mejor means better; what could mejorar mean? What clues have we got?” At this point, I would expect a student to elicit that it is an verb (based from the -ar ending), then expect them to identify it is an infinitive, before then asking them to sandwich the ‘better’ meaning of mejor and the ‘to’ element from the infinitive component of the word to get the resultant to better/improve meaning. I think this is an incredibly easy way to get students to view words in a different way and to expand their vocabulary, whilst simultaneously helping to develop decoding strategies.

Stopping to point out related words

Strategy #3: Etymology (word history)

One of the reasons I love etymology is that I think it is an easy way to transfer over our geeky love of words. a classic example I use in Spanish is where the ‘tricky’ word for left izquierda came from:

Explaining the etymology of ‘izquierda’

The Latin, from which Spanish originated, had sinistra for the left hand. In the past, the devil was thought to live on the left-hand shoulder, and people did not want to call the devil or make reference to the devil, for this reason many languages borrowed words from other languages to replace evolutions of the word sinistra. The Spaniards turned to the Basque word for left, and thus izquierda was born:

Taken from the Real Academia Española

Stories such as this, Quigley suggests, adds an element of meaning to the word to help make it memorable.

Strategy #4: Connecting to context

Connecting to context is something that students seem to do less than they ought to, and something if they used more readily as a skill, would help them make much more informed and reasoned guesses at the meaning of new vocabulary. Below is an example of how to use when dealing with Dolores-Soler Espiauba’s Guantanameras:

In this sentence, students are presented with avión – arguably a commonly-used noun in classrooms across the country; however, the verb to land aterriza appears a lot less frequently. Students often struggle to decode this word and work out its meaning. Using context can aid. Firstly: ask students to identify what they know (el avión, el aeropuerto and the preposition en). In my experience, students often don’t use cues to meaning, such as capital letters, to identify the meaning of a word – in this case José Martí. As is such, we must make it a part of our practice to guide students to identify that capital letters denote proper nouns – i.e. specific places or people. In this case, students will work out that José Martí is the airpot. This builds up context to the verb aterrizar. The next thing to do is to sum up the clues for the students, almost in a ‘Through the Key Hole’ fashion, before asking students: “What do aeroplanes do in/at/on airports?” This often leads to reasoned guesses of taking off or landing.

A final example, used with la madrina in Réquiem por un campesino español can be seen below:


These are not all of the 7 strategies, but are the ones that I presented on at TM MFL Icons. A quick list of the other strategies in practice can be found below:

Further reading:

For more information from Alex himself, go to:

For my video for students on using the strategies during lockdown, go to: