The Power of Latin & Greek Roots
Did you know that over 60% of all English words have Latin or Greek roots? According to author and education consultant Michael Clay Thompson, “Learning the 100 most common Latin and Greek stems in English give you access to at least 5,000 words!” You can not teach every word, but you can teach word roots that help unlock the meaning of multiple words.
The benefits of having the ability to decode the meaning of new and difficult words are many. First most, reading comprehension depends on vocabulary knowledge. (What can be more fundamental than that?) Of course, the standardized tests that students need to take for college admission require an understanding of complex vocabulary; this same robust vocabulary will undoubtedly help a student succeed at higher education, too. The Common Core has recognized this - the learning of roots is a standard starting as early as the kindergarten level when suffixes are introduced. Additionally, having the ability to unlock the meaning of new words is empowering. Still more, there is something innately satisfying about knowing the roots of our language and that they have a history that connects us to something bigger, to something more than what is presented at face value. (Now, that’s self-esteem.)
Let's take a closer look. Take, for example, the word periscope. If I know that the root peri means "around" and scope means "to look", I know that its root translation is "around look". With this, I can deduct its meaning, especially in the context of a reading passage about a submarine (sub meaning "below" and mare meaning "the sea".
Knowing prefixes and suffixes is also useful when decoding word meanings. Knowing that re means "again” clues the reader to define numerous words: revise (vis meaning “see”, so revise translates to “see again”); reconsider; resourceful; recommend; reproduction; renaissance, and so on! Knowing that the prefixes pro and pre mean “before” also helps with words like prejudice, proceed, and prodigy. Suffixes can even clue the reader into a word’s part of speech. The prefixes –able and –ible mean “capable” or “worthy of” and mark a word as an adjective (e.g., record to recordable). Adding the the prefix –ation to a verb changes it into a noun (e.g., vacate to vacation). (By the way, e.g. is Latin and stands for exempli gratia, meaning “for example”.)
You can find lots of lists online of Latin and Greek roots. I recommend using the Core Knowledge Sequence. This content and skills guidelines for grades K-12 provides lists of prefixes and suffixes (p. 80, p. 102, p. 126) and lists of base roots (pp. 150-151, p. 177 and pp. 200-201).
For younger children, there are some wonderful read alouds that focus on prefixes and suffixes. Here are a few:
- Happy Endings: A Story about Suffixes by Robin Pulver
- If You Were a Suffix (Word Fun) by Marcie Aboff
- If You Were a Prefix (Word Fun) by Marcie Aboff
- Pre- and Re-, Mis- and Dis-: What Is a Prefix? (Words Are CATegorical ®) by Brian P. Cleary
- -Ful and -Less, -Er and -Ness: What Is a Suffix? (Words Are CATegorical ®) by Brian P. Cleary
Additional ideas that support the learning of Latin and Greek roots follow.
- Have students write a story, song or poem that include a given number of words with the roots from their root list.
- Have students write Latin and Greek riddles to share.
- Create a roots concentration game for students to play in which they match the definition of the root to the root.
- Play “free association” with Latin and Greek root stems. In this set-up, the teacher gives a root term and the students have 20 seconds to write down all related words to the root. When the time’s up, have the students pair up, share their lists with a partner and explain the words on their list to one another.
- Have a ”Come Dressed as a Root” event. (Read more on educational costumes here.)
Rooster’s Teaching Resources offers complete units for middle school grades with a variety of activities to help students learn the Latin and Greek Roots from the Core Knowledge Sequence for grades 6, 7 and 8. These units also give a brief etymology of the Latin influences in our English language and encourage students to recognize the history contained in their everyday language.
Materials in the various bundles are:
- Why do We Say That? (handout on the history of our everyday language)
- Word Origins Search Directions & Rubric (editable)
- Guide Map for Latin/Greek Vocabulary and Foreign Phrases (student handout)
- Timeline of Influences on the English Language
- Mapping Activity
- Supporting Online Links
- Latin/Greek Word List (with meaning and examples)
- Latin & Greek Roots Booklet Directions & Rubrics (editable)
- Latin & Greek Roots Booklet Template
- Latin Phrases Commonly Used in English (student activity)
- Review Game based on “The Family Feud” with a built-in timer (100% editable PPT)
- Score Cards for Review Game
- End of Unit Test
- Answer Keys for all handouts, activities, tests and for the review game
All handouts are provided in both PDF and Google Slide formats.
You can also use the magical words in the Harry Potter series to learn your roots!
Finally, remember the capacity of those organic teachable moments. When you come across a root, stop. Teach or reteach those powerful Latin and Greek roots!