Tuesday, February 5, 2013

7 Reasons Why the Teaching of Roots and Affixes Is a Middle School Matter

In the 14 years that I've been teaching, I've seen a real shift in the philosophy of English Education.  When I started, whole language was the focus of all reading and writing instruction.  Quite honestly, this was a shock to me since, as a student in a very small K-12 school in upstate New York, I only knew traditional methodology.  My English classes were filled with diagramming sentences, memorizing the forms of the verb "to be," and studying vocabulary - including root words and affixes.  That being said, as you can imagine, seeing my own students read and write just for the love of reading and writing...not concentrating on the number of complex sentences versus compound-complex sentences in a passage, was exciting!  I loved it!  My students loved it...ELA was fun!  

But...the question of whether or not it was wise for the pendulum to swing so far to one side and seemingly abandon the systematic teaching of grammar, conventions and vocabulary - specifically Greek and Latin roots and affixes - now arises. Is there something to be said for the shift to a "back to basics" approach that the Common Core Standards require?  When looking carefully at the CCSS and researching the benefits of learning and internalizing the basic building blocks of language, to me the answer is a resounding, "Yes!"  The interesting thing I found is that the CCSS vocabulary standards pertaining to Greek and Latin affixes and roots begin at 4th Grade and end at 8th Grade.  Here's some of what I've found and why I think this is so:

1. Quite simply, let's start with knowing the parts helps our students to understand the whole.   Knowing commonly used roots and affixes can help students infer the definitions of new words in context.

2. The ability to infer meaning: Knowing Greek and Latin word parts helps students recognize and gain clues to understanding of other words that use known affixes and roots (Nagy & Scott, 2000).

3.  Over 60% of the words students will encounter in school textbooks have recognizable word parts; and many of these Latin and Greek roots (Nagy, Anderson, Schommer, Scott, & Stallman, 1989).  This means that word study can helps students' comprehension in all content areas.

4.   Recent reading research has supported the morphological approach to vocabulary development in elementary and middle school.  In linguistics, this practice of identifying and analyzing the parts of words in a given language is helpful in its acquisition.

5. Content area vocabulary is largely Greek and Latin-based and research supports this instruction, especially for struggling readers (Harmon, Hedrick & Wood, 2005).

6. Knowing commonly used suffixes can help students identify a word's part of speech, further helping with correct usage in writing.

7. Lastly, standardized tests assess students' vocabulary.  Whether we like it or not, state testing seems to be here to stay.  That being said, giving our students the tools necessary to be successful can turn what is often a stressful situation for many into an opportunity to confidently show what they know.

In doing some research to answer my own questions for this post, I also found a very well-written and thorough research summary on the topic created by the National Middle School Association.  In it you will find a great deal of research that not only supports the instruction of vocabulary in language development, but the need for word study at the middle school level.

So, with all of this said, we now need to examine how.  How do we meet the needs of our students without swinging the pendulum all the way back in the other direction...forsaking student-centered instruction for skill and drill?  I think balance is the key.  Direct instruction of vocabulary is a place to start, but time should be given for students to explore and analyze word parts in small groups or learning centers and on their own.  This gradual release of responsibility approach - which we know so well in the instruction of reading - pertains to vocabulary as well.  

In an effort to help you find materials that can help with organizing cooperative learning opportunities for word study, I'm also including a link to my Content Areas Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes - which includes a PowerPoint for reviewing word parts and their roles in language.  
CCR and CCSS aligned for ELA 5 - 8


It includes charts and Memory Match cards for roots in ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies as well as for commonly used prefixes and suffixes. My Student Accountability Form and my My Vocabulary Keeps Growing graphic organizer are also included.

Please feel free to click HERE  if you would like more details.

In providing links to some of the free materials I've created for vocabulary, and following the post I wrote for Common Core Classrooms, I've received some great feedback, and questions as to the whys and hows have been asked.  I'm hoping that I've given you some more information, places to look for additional answers, and have offered some resources that may be helpful.  Are you teaching roots, prefixes and suffixes in your classroom? If you have fun ways that you have had your students review or practice...please consider sharing more in the comments below.  The more insight and resources we can gather, the better!

Harmon, J., Hedrick, W., Wood, K. (2005).  Research on vocabulary instruction in the 
Content areas:  Implication for struggling readers.  Reading & Writing Quarterly, 21, 

Nagy, W.E., Anderson, R.C., Schommer, M., Scott, J.A., & Stallman, A.C. (1989). Morphological families in the internal lexicon. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(3), 262-282.

Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 269–284). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


  1. We started doing this last year in ELA, and I can definitely see how it's helping students think about word parts to create meaning. Great resources, as always! Thanks for sharing, Stephanie!

  2. Hi Stephanie,
    Excellent blog! I totally agree with the need to study word parts! There are so many extremely important units I've had to eliminate this year. We only have 40 minutes in 7th grade English; not nearly enough time.
    I'm on my way to look at the research you linked right now!
    Thank you!


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