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Teaching Strategies | English Language Arts | Phonics | February 28, 2024

Teaching Weekly Word Roots

Root words are the base portion of a word—the part to which prefixes and suffixes are attached. Root words provide a word’s “basic” or main meaning. In this article, learn about key reasons for teaching root words and strategies to fit teaching English word roots into literacy instruction.

Not Enough Time

Today’s literacy curricula are filled with so many various literacy-related components that teachers often lack the time, or energy, to cover all these competencies. Teachers in the elementary and middle grades, among other curriculum requirements, are expected to spend time daily on word decoding (phonics), vocabulary (word meaning), fluency, comprehension, read-aloud, spelling, and writing. All this in 90–150 minutes per day. How can teaching be made more efficient?

TCM_ODW_TeachingWeeklyWordRoots-650x520-2One approach is to connect literacy to other academic and cultural content. Throughout the year we celebrate various historic and cultural events that are familiar to students—such as the United States President’s Day in February, Valentine’s Day in February, Memorial Day in May, Labor Day in September, Halloween in late October, and Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in Canada) every November 11th. Wouldn’t it be great for students to learn about these special events and be connected to related words or English word roots so that they can expand their vocabularies at the same time? In a sense, teachers (and students) would get a “twofer”—two academic goals covered with one instructional focus.

What Are Word Roots and Why Do We Teach Them?

You may be asking yourself, then, exactly what is a word root? “Root” is an umbrella term for any part (segment or pattern) of a word that holds meaning (Ayers, 1986). Prefixes, bases, and suffixes are the three types of roots. In terms of a word’s structure, the prefix appears at the beginning, the base in the middle, and the suffix at the end. For example, the prefix “pre-“ means “before” and can be found in English words such as pregame, preview, prepare, preschool.

Word roots are more than just prefixes and suffixes, though. The base portion of a word—the part to which prefixes and suffixes are attached—provides a word’s “basic” or main meaning. For example, “trac, tract” is a base word root which means “pull, draw, drag.” From this root, we get the English words tractor, traction, and trace. Additionally, by adding prefixes (and suffixes), we can expand the number of English words that contain the “trac, tract” word root. Knowing that “trac, tract” means to “pull, draw, drag” you should have little trouble in understanding the following words: abstract, attract, distraction, extract, contract, retractable, retraction, trace, traction, tractor, and so on.

What you have just seen in the paragraph above is a key reason for teaching word roots—their generative nature. One word root can be found in and help define the meaning of many English words. ”Tract,” for example, appears in over 100 English words! Teach one word root; learn a lot of English words.

Another important feature of word roots is that they are very often found in academic vocabulary–those challenging words students encounter when studying science, math, social studies, and more. In fact, it has been estimated that upwards of 90% of academic words and more than 50% of more challenging multisyllabic words are at least partially derived from Latin and Greek word roots.

So clearly, instruction in word roots has great potential for increasing students’ reading vocabularies and thus improving reading comprehension (if you know what the words in a text mean, you are more likely to understand the text itself). Additionally, and importantly, word roots instruction can also improve students’ learning in the academic subject areas.  

Back to the Issue of Time for Teaching

Let’s get back to the question of time. How can teachers find the time to teach English word roots when their curricula are already filled to the brim? One way is to connect word roots instruction to those daily events and commemorations that we want students to learn about.

Weekly Word Roots is a simple and easy-to-implement approach to teaching word roots that are connected to important events and holidays throughout the year. We have identified an event for each week of the year that also has a word root connection. Students are introduced to the significant day or event (for example, Valentine’s Day) and then presented with the word root associated with the day or event (for example, word root phil(e) = love). Students are introduced to the root and its meaning as well as words that belong to that word root family (philosopher, philanthropist, bibliophile, Philadelphia, Francophile, Anglophile, and so on) and their meanings. A brief instructional activity that can be done as a group or individually follows, and that’s it! The entire lesson takes 10–15 minutes—yet it is time spent learning about important cultural and historical content, expanding reading and writing vocabularies, and positively impacting academic learning beyond reading. Teachers and students are encouraged to revisit the root and related words throughout the week. In each of the following weeks, a new holiday or significant event and its associated root are introduced and taught.  

Not only is the Weekly Word Roots approach a great way to build vocabulary and visit important events in a very timely and time-efficient manner, but the approach also helps students develop an interest in words and how they are formed. Many students will want to take the study of word roots to even deeper levels. You will be developing new lexophiles (the word root lex means “word”). What could be better than that?  

Connecting literacy with cultural content allows teachers to meet two goals through one instructional focus. Teaching weekly English word roots in conjunction with daily events and commemorations that students are learning about means that they are simultaneously learning about important cultural and historical content, expanding reading and writing vocabularies, and positively impacting academic learning beyond reading.

Ayers, D. M. (1986). English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

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 Bio:

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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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