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Summer Learning | Teaching Strategies | May 13, 2024

Building Vocabulary in Summer School

To be successful readers, students must have knowledge of word meanings. Despite the benefits of morphology, it is often not taught systematically. Summer offers a great opportunity to devote instructional time to building vocabulary with morphemes, or word roots. This article shares the benefits, key strategies, and a lesson.

Word Roots  

A word root is a word segment or pattern that represents meaning. We often think of word families or rimes/phonograms as word segments that represent consistent language spellings and as sounds found in many words (e.g., “ank” is found in bank, blank, crank, clank, dank, drank, Hank, sank, tank, blanket, and so on). Word roots work in much the same way as word families except that, in addition to representing consistent spellings and sounds in words, they also represent consistent meanings. For example, the prefix “bi” means “two” and can be found in English words such as “bicycle, biplane, biannual, biceps, bicuspids, bifurcate”, and so on.

Benefits of Teaching Word Roots for Building Vocabulary

We suggest that a brief but dedicated portion of time in the summer be spent on teaching word roots. Here’s why:

  • Teaching word roots expands students’ vocabularies for reading, writing, and speaking. The generative nature of word roots means that learning just one word root helps students learn the meaning (as well as the spelling and sounding) of 50 or more English words. That’s a pretty good payoff for learning a few word roots.
  • Upwards of 90% academic words in English are derived from Latin and Greek word roots. Thus, learning word roots has the potential for improving students’ learning in science, social studies, mathematics, and other disciplinary areas.
  • Longer, multisyllabic words are the ones that students struggle with in grades 3 and beyond. Over 50% of multisyllabic words in English are at least partially made up of word roots. Thus, learning word roots will help students learn to decode (and determine the meaning of) many of these more challenging words. A student who knows the Latin root “struct” means “build” can decode and figure out the meaning of words like structure, construction, structure, reconstruction, deconstruct, obstruction and infrastructure.
  • Word roots derived from Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, are not only found in English but in other “Romance” languages. Thus, learning word roots can help English learners create linguistic bridges from, say, Spanish to English. Students who speak or study Spanish may recognize “struct” in many words, including estructura, constructivo, reconstrucción, infraestructura.
  • Evidence-based scientific research has shown that teaching word roots has positive effects on students’ literacy development (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2013). 

“.. the manner in which students in the middle grades (4–8) can be supported in recognizing the meanings of multisyllabic words requires attention. Studies of morphological interventions have shown positive effects” (Hiebert, 2022).

“Research indicates that morphology instruction fosters decoding, spelling, and vocabulary development […] Teaching the meaning of affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and root words is a fairly widespread (and research-supported) practice, but morphology instruction goes well beyond this. Students need to be taught to decompose and compose words by morphemes, playing detective as they figure out how to figure out a word’s meaning or build a word with a particular meaning. Starting with compound words such as cupcake, skateboard, or railroad may be helpful. Over time, students can move to more sophisticated word composition and decomposition.” (Duke, 2017).

To recap, building students’ knowledge of word meanings is essential to their success in reading, writing, and content area learning. Decades of research have found the value of morphology instruction in vocabulary development.


A Case for Systematic Word Root Instruction 

Summer is on its way, and so is summer school. Time is always limited for instruction and learning in the summer. The challenge is to how to get the most out of your instructional “buck” and effort, especially in helping students who may be most at risk.  The teaching of word roots (morphemes) in the summer offers great opportunities to help students in several areas. But here’s the thing: word roots instruction is generally not taught systematically in most classrooms during the regular school year. Thus, if word roots are not taught then, then how about during summer?

Building Vocabulary with Systematic Word Root Instruction

We recommend teaching word roots in grades K–11 with a systematic structured approach to building vocabulary, both general and academic, for the present and future. The Building Vocabulary program is structured around word patterns (rimes/phonograms for grades K–2 and word roots/morphemes for grades 3–11). Each level is organized to fit within 28 weeks, essentially a school year. Though it is designed to fit within the scope of an academic year, with a few adjustments, the program can easily be made to work effectively in summer school settings as well.

Building Vocabulary for Summer Teaching and Learning

Below we offer two approaches for making Building Vocabulary a key part of summer teaching and learning. Each option offers a way to utilize the program on a summer school schedule.

Option 1: One Unit per Week

Work with one Building Vocabulary unit per week. This would allow you to complete one lesson each day, one unit each week, and an entire level in five weeks. This is a rapid pace, so your instructional goal might be more of a quick introduction to many roots rather than an in-depth look at fewer roots.

To use this option, you will need to devote 60–90 minutes to vocabulary each day. Be sure to do “Meet the Root” and “Divide and Conquer” as outlined in the Teacher’s Guide. If you have Spanish-speaking students, take advantage of the “Cognate Connections” section of the Teacher’s Guide. Work information about cognates into discussions as you can. This will probably take an hour.

Then either select additional activities (or ask students to choose) to round out the time. Note that many of the activities in the “Read and Reason,” “Combine and Create,” and “Extend and Explore” portions of lessons can be completed independently or in pairs/ small groups. You could also ask students to complete a few items from an activity in school and the rest at home.

Option 2: Selected Roots

Teach selected roots in greater depth. Choose two or three units for focus. If students have already completed the Building Vocabulary level previously, consult their former teachers to discover which units students found most challenging. Then focus attention on these units. Because the activities are engaging, and students have plenty of opportunities to interact with classmates, this review is unlikely to be boring. Remember that there are also digital activities and games as well as differentiation suggestions for each lesson, so there are plenty of resources to support in-depth instruction of fewer roots.

Utilize a quick pre-test to help you select units. Find units that will challenge but not overwhelm students. Another option is to select a unit about prefixes and a unit about bases. The “Teacher Notes” for each lesson give examples of how suffixes affect words, so you may want to draw students’ attention to suffixes within the context of lessons about prefixes and bases instead of devoting an entire unit to them.

Having selected the units, you can plan as above. Spend about 8–12 days on each unit. Use the schedule presented above to plan instruction.

Additional Summer Planning Tips

Before you begin building vocabulary in summer school, consider assessment options. You want to spend most of your time teaching, not assessing. Select an assessment idea that you believe will be effective for your students. Note that the informal Cloze assessments can be used individually or as a whole group.

Think about at-home activities, too. Send something home with students two or three days each week. Invite parents or caregivers to partner with students as they complete the activities.

Plan to communicate with students’ future teachers. Tell teachers what roots you focused upon and, perhaps, a bit about students’ success.

How to get the most out of summer instruction is an essential question we need to be asking now. Vocabulary instruction around morphemes that includes real reading may be one of the best ways to boost students’ reading and overall academic achievement and proficiency. Make the most of summer instructional time to build vocabulary. 

Bowers P., Kirby J., & Deacon S. (2010). The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research. 80(2):144-179.

Duke, N. (2017, Nov 16). Three literacy practices that work. Edutopia.

Hiebert, E. (2022). When students perform at the below basic level on the NAEP: What does It mean and what can educators do? The Reading Teacher, 00, 1–9. 

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2020). Building Vocabulary with Greek and Latin Roots (2nd ed). Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.

Author Bios 

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Literacy Education, at Kent State University, is the author of numerous best-selling books and articles on reading education. He is a frequent presenter nationwide. His research on fluency was cited by the National Reading Panel.

Nancy Padak, Ed.D., Kent State University, is the Principal Investigator for the Ohio Literacy Resource Center and directs the Reading and Writing Center at Kent State. She has served as editor of The Reading Teacher and the Journal of Literacy Research.

Rick M. Newton, Ph.D., Kent State University, is Emeritus Professor of Greek and Latin and also teaches a popular and long-running course on vocabulary development.

Evangeline Newton, Ph.D., University of Akron, is Professor of Literacy Education and Director of the Center for Literacy. She teaches literacy methods courses and conducts workshops for teachers on word study, comprehension, and guided reading.

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Vocabulary Building: Weekly Word Roots

Using the power of Greek and Latin word roots, take students deep into the meaning of words. Learn simple and effective ways to incorporate word root routine into your weekly instruction using holidays or special days throughout the year.


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Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Literary Education, Kent State University

Dr. Timothy Rasinski is a professor emeritus of literary education at Kent State University and was previously director of its award-winning reading clinic. Dr. Rasinski is the author of numerous best-selling books, articles, and curriculum programs on literacy education and has co-authored many resources for Shell Education including, but not limited to, Greek & Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary, Starting with Prefixes and Suffixes, Practice with Prefixes, Vocabulary Ladders:...

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