Getting to the Root of Word Meanings

"If you speak English, you know a little more than 100 languages." (Garg, 2011)

Learning prefixes, suffixes and root word meanings is an important aspect of vocabulary instruction. Once my least favorite method for vocabulary, but now it is one of my favorite. Many times while working on understanding the meaning of parts of words, it is very rewarding to see the "lightbulb" moment where they begin to understand words on a whole new level.

There are so many ways the parts of words can be taught that it can be mind-boggling! I like to break it down into two sections - Greek and Latin. Did you know that 50% of words have a Latin origin and 50% have a Greek origin? So, this is a great place to start.

Direct Instruction with Lists
You can find list of root words, prefixes and suffixes all over the internet. It seems daunting sometimes when you see a long, involved list. However, start with the most common words adding and deleting a variety of prefixes and suffixes to show students how to combine the information to create different meanings. Scholastic has a list of common prefixes and suffixes here.

Prefixes and Suffixes
White, Sowell and Yanagihara (1989) found that approximately 20 prefixes were used in 97% of all English words. Begin by taking the 10 most common prefixes, teach them and then work from there. The same research team also determined the frequency of suffixes.  One way is inflectional endings: nouns (-s, -es),verbs (-ed, -ing, -en), and adjectives (-er, -est). Other suffixes are -ful, -less, -tion and -ly.  Rebecca Miller, Ph.D. recommends using a Prefix Suffix Flipbook. You'll find instructions to make your own here. She suggested flip books with the example of the prefix uni- with unicycle, uniform, and unicorn like the one below:


One of the tutors I worked with introduced me to two card decks by Washington Reads, SocraTeaser and CaesarPleaser. I first use the card decks for instruction and then we play games with them, helping the students to become more proficient. CaesarPleaser focuses on the Greek origins of English words. There are three sets of cards - root words (black), prefixes (green) and suffixes (read). Students take turns choosing one of each and forming words, discussing the meaning of the parts of each word. SocraTeaser is based on the Latin origins of English. Two or more players can play a rummy type of game with SocraTeaser.
Working on parts of words can be daunting, but when students learn the "equation" of the longer words prefix + root word + suffix = target word, they can begin to understand how to break down and change word meanings. More importantly, teaching one root word, prefix or suffix opens up a whole avenue for learning that expands to multiple variations of that word and helps students decode meaning.

Vocabulary Discussion to Teach Word Meanings

     Educators and speech language pathologists are all too familiar with the myriad of activities used for teaching vocabulary, but sometimes the best way is the old-fashioned way - classroom discussion. Engaging students in active discussions about word meanings can be very rewarding.
     During classroom discussion, students can learn a great deal from their peers and add to their "experiences" about the target words. Steven Stahl's Vocabulary Development makes some good points about discussing vocabulary as a class:

Discussions can clarify misunderstandings 
Give and take discussions can help students make connections about words they partially know or only knew in one context. Making these misunderstandings public allows the instructor to "shape them into conventional meaning." Most likely, if one student misunderstands the meaning of a word, you've got several more students in your discussion that don't understand it either.

Practice and Preparation
While students are waiting to be called upon, they are able to rehearse, practice and prepare their own response for the discussion. Only one child is called to answer a question or add to the discussion, but all of the students around him are practicing what they might say and are thinking about what they know about the vocabulary word. This act of students practicing "covertly" can lead to increased vocabulary learning and a deeper and broader understanding of the word.

Using the Text
Research has shown that learning words in text improves comprehension. It's recommended teachers should chose the words for discussion that are important to the text. For example, if the class is reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and comes across the sentence, "Kristi dawdled just behind them or scampered ahead, never out of sight," two of the words give context into Kristi's motive or emotion. Dawdle is walking slowly, gently or powerfully, and means the character is oblivious or wasting time. Students can discuss how dawdle and scamper provide added inferential information and give insight into why Kristi is walking in such a way.

Classroom discussion or even one-on-one discussion, can provide the student with added experiences that help them recall the meaning of the word. When trying to recall what a word means while reading or taking a test, the previous discussion might trigger associations to help with word retrieval.  "Oh, yeah, I remember we talked about that in class and Jake said...." or "it was really funny when Ashley said ___ about this word."

Technology and Classroom Discussion

Finally, some schools in our area us smart board technology during classroom discussion. The instructor uses computers and tablets hooked up to a large screen that acts like a large classroom tablet. You display the app or program on the board and then teachers and students can touch the board like a tablet or phone to interact with the software. Our iPad vocabulary apps, InferCabulary and WordQuations, have been used with smart board technology and some pretty amazing discussions arose in this classroom exercise.  With InferCabulary we've heard, "No, prominent can't just mean sticking out like that tree, because you see that picture of a green eye?" WordQuations really lends itself to helping students make connections using an "equation" to determine the meaning of verb synonyms along with vine-like videos.

Low tech and high tech classroom discussions are important for students to understand new and lesser-known vocabulary words words in a deeper and broader way.

Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Knowledge

       We have had the privilege of speaking at various conventions and meetings talking about the InferCabulary and WordQuations methods for vocabulary. In our talks we always include background in vocabulary knowledge/research and discuss how important it is for students to know vocabulary broadly and deeply.

Rebecca Silverman and Anna Hartranft discuss the dimensions of vocabulary in terms of breadth and depth in their book, Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children
Breadth refers to "having at least surface-level knowldege" of many vocabulary words. For example, I've heard and read the word, perspicuous. I know it has something to do with the word "look," but I'm not sure I could use it correctly in writing or while speaking. This means I have a surface-level knowledge of perspicuous, but not a strong, healthy knowledge.
Depth of vocabularly refers to a "robust" or strong, healthy knowledge of a word. It involves knowing the "many different facets of words," including how it sounds (phonology), the written form (orthography), other forms of the word (morphology), it's grammatical use (syntax), meanings and how it relates to other words (semantics) and how to convey meaning to others (pragmatics). Whew! That's a lot of knowledge - deep and broad knowledge.
Having broad and deep knowledge of a word means that when children hear or read the word, they will fully understand it. This is what we need to be working towards in the classroom and in language therapy. Completing worksheets, taking quizzes, and using vocabulary words in a sentence does not always go far enough into helping our students with language-based learning difficulties tap into a deeper knowledge of vocabulary.

Words and their Concepts

In order for
students to effectively learn vocabulary, it is essential that they learn the relationship
between spoken/printed words and the concepts that the words represent.  According to Smith (1995), concepts are like the building
blocks—the basic units of belief and thought. 
Words are simply the labels
that are attached to these beliefs and thoughts.  Whenever a person has a frame of reference
(also known as background knowledge) for these concepts, the underlying meaning
is understood, so the word is often remembered. For people who do not have
language disorders, these words will be easily stored and retrieved.  The depth of understanding of the new concept
continues to grow as the person learns more about the concept by reading about
it and/or experiencing it personally. 
The understanding of the concept is fine-tuned, and oftentimes, words
can be added to convey these slight nuances.  
According to
Shane Templeton and John Pikulski of Houghton Miffilin,  vocabulary knowledge can grow in four ways:
·   Elaboration of a
vocabulary word—
a student might learn
that “cat” as a pet actually can apply to large, wild cats, such as lions
·    New words can be linked with understood concepts—miserable, a new word, can be linked to the
understanding of “sad.”  Or, prosperous, with the idea of having a
lot of money
·   New concepts can be connected with known words—learning that “resist” is not just applicable to physical resisting
(pushing back against an object), but also resisting temptation (emotionally
·   Learning a word and a concept together—learning a new
concept, and at the same time, being introduced to a novel word, such as metamorphosis 
How we teach
new words will depend on which of the above processes is occurring for the

student. It is easiest--for most
students--to learn a new word that
can be linked to a  known concept. Many times, a simple explanation is enough for the
new word to be learned. It is hardest to develop a concept and a label for the concept—the student must develop what is known
as a “schema,” then link the novel word to this new schema.  Therefore, more time will be spent on this
process.  Because we want students to
understand words in a deep, broad way (Gaves, 1994,) we need to provide them
with scaffolding so that novel words can be linked with known words and
concepts as frequently as possible. 
Words and concepts are inextricably linked. Depending on the role these
new words play, teachers must expend different levels of instruction in order
to teach them effectively.