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Fake Medical Dictionary


This is a fun and creative activity through which students can gain facility with morphological analysis, and an appreciation for the generativity of morphemes.  Students combine morphemes to create their own “medical dictionary,” composed of invented terms that follow standard morphological conventions.

Learning Strategies 

  • Connecting
  • Inferring
  • Synthesizing
Word Study

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Investigation

Content Areas 

  • ELA

Learning Strands 

  • Reading

Common Core Instructional Shifts 

  • Academic Vocabulary


  • It can be fun to start this activity by showing a clip from The Office (US version) episode “Health Care,” which aired on April 5, 2005.  Focus on this conversation, in which characters Jim and Pam are inventing new diseases to write down on an office health form:
Jim Halpert: Wait, what are you writing? Don't write Ebola or mad cow disease, all right? Because I'm suffering from both of them.
Pam Beesly: I'm inventing new diseases.
Jim Halpert: Oh, great.
Pam Beesly: So, like, let's say that my teeth turn to liquid and then they drip down the back of my throat. What would you call that?
Jim Halpert: I thought you said you were inventing new diseases. That's spontaneous dental hydroplosion.
Pam Beesly: Nice.
  • Find a list of real but obscure medical conditions and treatments, which have transparent morphological structures.  Of course, it is a good idea not to choose anything too serious or common just in case a student has a personal experience with a diagnosis—it’s also critical to discuss each diagnosis with respect.  Phobias and philias are often particularly fruitful.  Possible choices include: omphalophobia (fear of belly buttons), taurophobia (fear of bulls), abdominoplasty (tummy tuck), or adenoidectomy (removal of the adenoids). 
  • Prepare to review the spelling rules associated with suffixing (the y/i rule, the doubling rule, and the e-drop rule are the most important), as well as alternate spellings of prefixes (like im/in/il), if needed. 
Activity Steps 
  1. The teacher reviews what a morpheme is, and the basic types (prefixes, roots, suffixes). The teacher leads a discussion about the value of morphological analysis.
    A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of a word. 
    You can also do this activity before students learn prefixes, just studying roots and suffixes. 
    Morphological analysis is important because English spelling is morphophonemic: it encodes both sound (phonemes), and the meaning and history of words (morphemes).  So learners cannot really understand the spelling system without understanding both phonics (patterns of sound/letter correspondence) and morphology (the way meaningful units are combined to form words). 
    Also, morphological analysis helps enormously with identifying and pronouncing new words, with spelling, and with predicting and remembering the meaning of words. 
  2. Teacher introduces activity with the video clip and/or printed transcript of the conversation from The Office.

    Discuss with students how Jim translates the definition of the fake medical condition into a plausible-sounding word.  What parts did he use?  How did he combine them?

  3. Teacher reviews the three suffixing spelling rules.
    The three most important rules are:
    • the doubling rule
    • the e-drop rule
    • the y/i change rule
    There are many handouts and posters available online that summarize these accessibly for students, or you may want to teach them in separate lessons. 
    You can also choose to skip these rules if you are not focusing on spelling in this lesson—doing so may result in some misspelled words (“runing” instead of “running,” “happyness” instead of “happiness”), but they will still be valuable.
    Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, you may also want to include alternate spellings of prefixes (like in/im/il).
  4. Teacher displays models of real medical terms. Together, students and teacher discuss how the words are composed, and identify the component morphemes. Teacher leads discussion about how the morphemes collectively create the word meaning.
    You will want to acknowledge how there are often several plausible definitions for multimorphemic words.  For example, “spontaneous dental hydroplosion” could mean “a condition in which teeth cause water to spontaneously explode.”
    You may want to lead students in a discussion of where most English roots come from (Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon).  When they are Googling roots, they should be aware of these, and may want to use searches such as “Greek root for water.”  If you really want to get sophisticated, discuss how medical (and scientific) terms usually have Greek roots.
  5. Working independently or in small groups, have students create approximately five fake medical conditions or medical treatments. They make the words and write the definitions.
    Depending on the sophistication of the students, you may want to make available a list of useful morphemes for this task (for example, “-itis,” “-ectomy,” “-philia,” “-phobia”). 
    Students should have access to a glossary of roots, and/or a website like  Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) and a search engine.  Since the fun of this assignment is often being creative with obscure ideas, students should have the opportunity to look up roots of rare words they think of.
    Circulate as students are working, suggesting combinations they may not have thought of, and asking them to explain their thinking. 
    Look out for students who are confused because they don’t remember the spelling rules—help them to recognize how minor changes to the morphemes result in real words. 
  6. Optional: students publish the definitions in the style of a real dictionary, perhaps with illustrations. They can do this collectively or independently.

    Depending on the scope of the activity, this can be a fun extension, and students can end up with a class “medical reference book.”  Illustrating the terms helps students to conceptualize combining the meanings of the morphemes visually. 

  7. Teacher invites each group to share one or two terms and definition.

    You can also make this a matching/guessing game, in which students try to pair the made-up words with the made-up definitions.  Or, you can ask students to brainstorm alternative definitions for each term, or alternative terms for each definition.  

  8. Alone or in groups, in conversation or in writing, students reflect on their learning process.

    Students respond to questions including:

    • How did this activity contribute to your understanding of how words are put together?
    • How are many new words invented?
    • What rules are usually followed when someone makes up a word?
    • How can morphological analysis help you with your spelling?  Your reading? Your understanding of words?
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