Posted in Vocabulary

How To Set-Up a Greek and Latin Roots Study Routine (and Why You Should)

Before readers can comprehend a text, they must already know of 90%-95% of the words it contains.  Look at the sentences below where nonsense words have been substituted for real words to simulate gaps in the reader’s vocabulary.  Can you identify the action taking place?

Arkling, our final runner tiffled bambily across the finish line. (70% known)

Readers can identify that a runner is crossing the finish line in a race, but what’s important about it?  Are readers supposed to be happy for them or sharing disappointment that they were last?

Next, imagine this was sentence was testing your ability to use context clues.  Could you determine the meaning of tiffled?  As an ELA teacher or literacy coach you are obviously proficient in using context clues to decipher word meaning.  Unfortunately, without prior knowledge of the words arkling and bambily, that skill is only marginally helpful.  Is Arkling someone’s name? Using syntax and suffixes you can infer that tiffled is an action verb and bambily is an adverb describing how the runner tiffled.  Still, it’s not enough to truly comprehend the idea this sentence is trying to convey.

Now, let’s look at the same sentence, as read by someone whose vocabulary is more developed.

Wincing, our final runner tiffled unevenly across the finish line. (90% known)

Now, we can use the context clues wincing and unevenly to determine that tiffled means limped or hobbled.

A puny vocabulary can mask proficiency in other skills as well.  I remember analyzing mid-term scores with my PLC one year.  We were stumped by how many students missed a question about character traits.  They’d mastered the skill on formative tasks, and it was easy to infer that the character in question enjoyed bullying others.  After some investigation, we determined that it was the wording of the answer items that had stumped them.  Many of our students didn’t know what the term malicious meant, and so they’d dismissed what was, in fact, the correct answer choice.

One way to quickly cover a lot of ground in word-learning is to systematically teach word roots – those meaningful word parts that can be combined with prefixes, suffixes, and other roots to form new words. For example, the Latin root -mal- means “bad” or “evil” and the adjective suffix -ous means “characterized by” or “full of.”  Armed with this knowledge, even if students had never encountered the word malicious before, they could determine its meaning “characterized by evil.”

What makes teaching roots so powerful is that knowing what a single root means can unlock the definition of hundreds, if not thousands, of new words.  The root -mal- is a component of over 2-thousand individual words (at least according to my word game cheat site The Free Dictionary).

So, what’s the best way to teach root words, prefixes, and suffixes?  First, you need to determine which word parts will benefit your students the most.  Some districts publish word part lists like this one, specifying which roots and affixes should be targeted at each grade level.  You can also preview texts and make note of which word parts students will encounter while reading them.

It’s also important to make word structure a regular component of your instruction.  Learning word parts is not a “one and done” situation.  Students need to see and use that word part multiple times before it is incorporated into their vocabulary.

Last year, I did this by challenging my students to become “Word Watchers.” At the beginning of the year I taught students about base words, root words, prefixes, and affixes, showing them how knowledge of these word parts could be used to determine the meaning of new words.  Each week thereafter, I targeted a high-value root, prefix, or affix that students could be expected to encounter.  On Monday, I presented a micro-lesson:  added a Word Part Poster to our classroom Word Wall, called students’ attention to the target word, and shared examples.  Together we determined if it was a root word, prefix, or suffix.  Next, I passed out bookmarks with the same information on it.  I directed students to look for words containing that word part every time they read during the week.  They had to find three examples and record them on their bookmark, noting the word, underlining the word part, defining the word, and identifying the source.  (Students on access points searched for the example word itself or another word formed from its stem.)  At the end of the week, I reviewed the words on their bookmarks with them and they pasted them into their comp books.

This exercise ensured that students were exposed to the weekly word part multiple times.  It got them into the habit of looking for roots and affixes as they read.  It also created a reference they could use again and again throughout the year.  Assigning a summative grade for this standard was a simple matter of adding a few questions to each of our quarterly exams.  I culled the existing test passages for words containing the word parts we’d studied, and asked students to analyze or define them.

As an alternative to posters and bookmarks, you could post a weekly word part on a class bulletin board (or even write it in a reserved space on your whiteboard).  You might also substitute post-it notes for bookmarks—inviting students to record examples of the targeted root or affix on the note and sticking it beside the posted reference.

This practice, along with use of the digital root word flash cards featured in this previous post, helped my students make impressive vocabulary gains.  And because we returned to these word parts time and time again, I’m confident they’re still benefiting from the work we invested in learning them.

Posted in Vocabulary

Supplemental Vocabulary Practice

Teachers are advised to “teach vocabulary in context.”  Yet, our textbooks often have just a few word-building questions or activities.  Students–particularly middle school students–aren’t likely to retain those new words without repeated practice.  (To dig deeper into that research read my posts on the Fab Five Vocabulary strategies and using the spacing effect to bolster learning.)  To bridge this gap, I created supplemental vocab activities for the textbook selections my students were reading.  Last year, I shared resources created for the 6th grade textbook.  This year, I’ve started adding units for the 7th grade textbook as well.

I just uploaded the latest addition–a unit targeting vocabulary from the myth “The Flight of Icarus” and the poem “Icarus’s Flight.” For the next couple of days, you can try it for FREE!  Just log into my TPT store to download the new “Icarus Vocabulary Extension for HMH Collections.  Use the TPT link or click here.  A “Rogue Wave” vocabulary unit is already available, and I’m working on one now for the informational texts in Collection One.  If you like “Icarus” please share  your experience with other TPT users. You can also comment below.

Each set includes 5-pages of activities, each designed for use as a daily warm-up or self-contained literacy center.   On average, it takes students about 10-minutes to complete each activity.  You can review the answers using the included key.

In addition to learning new words, each unit focuses on a different type of context clue–with a mini-lesson that includes a list of common signal words.  Each unit also includes a language component–with either  a grammar mini-lesson or word part analysis.  So, this resource goes beyond most vocabulary activities–by teaching students strategies they can apply to ALL future reading.  There’s also a word puzzle included in each set because… language should be FUN!

In designing this resource, I tried to incorporate many “best practices” for word acquisition, including repeated encounters with the word in different contexts and a progressive sequence of instruction for context clues and grammar (this will be most notable if you use multiple units or bundles).

I’d love to know how you use this unit.  Comment below or leave feedback on the TPT product page.

Posted in Vocabulary

Fab Five for Vocabulary Instruction

One of the cornerstones of reading comprehension is knowledge of vocabulary.   In fact, experts believe that comprehension is possible only when students already know 90- to 95-percent of the words in a given text.1 That’s why effective vocabulary instruction is vitally important for every level and subject.

On average students need to learn between 2-thousand and 3-thousand new words each year, just to keep up with their peers.2   Those who read outside of school will easily manage this, since just 20-minutes of independent reading a day puts children in contact with over 2-million words.3  But, what about students who don’t read outside of school?  What about those who come from homes where English isn’t even spoken?  These students, along with those whose vocabulary acquisition has already been hampered by a learning disability or deficit socio-cultural environment, will fall further and further behind without focused vocabulary instruction.

If you’re looking for the ONE silver bullet strategy to teach vocabulary, you’re not going to find it here–or anywhere.  That’s because studies have shown students need both direct and indirect instruction. They also need multiple exposures to a word in different contexts to truly learn a new word.4  This need for repetition makes sense given the four levels of word knowledge that exist:

  1. I never saw it before.
  2. I’ve seen it before, but I’m not sure what it means.
  3. I recognize it in context; it has something to do with…
  4. I know it.

Even though students need variety in vocabulary instruction, there are some practices proven to be highly effective.  I call these the “Fab Five” Vocabulary Strategies, and they include both direct and indirect instruction.


Teachers should strive to teach about 400 words each year through direct instruction.2  (I know that would make for some intimidating weekly word lists, but you can leverage knowledge of word roots and affixes here.)   Even though direct instruction implies a teacher-led activity, actively involving students in the learning process, by using discussion, graphic organizers or self-evaluation tools, increases understanding.  Of course, it is also important that the words be relevant.  The best way to ensure this is to link vocabulary instruction to texts the students are currently reading.  Peruse class texts in advance to identify potential vocabulary words you can use during explicit instruction.

#1 – Analyzing Word Structure

Morphology involves segmenting words into their component parts:  base words, roots, prefixes and suffixes.  Students who learn the meaning of common roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can apply that knowledge whenever they encounter a new word that contains a known component.   For example, a student who knows that –port- means “to carry” and -able means “able to” can assume that portable means “able to be carried” even if they are encountering the word portable for the first time.  They can then apply that knowledge to new words containing these word parts:  transport, portal, or transit.   There are a number of great resources for employing word structure analysis in your classroom, such as this one from Read.Write.Think. or this one from the Florida Center for Reading Research.  In another post I describe the Greek and Latin word study routine I built into independent reading.

My post on tinycards also included a link to existing root word flash cards I’ve used with great success.

#2 – Read Alouds

Yes, you should be reading aloud to your students, even in middle grades and beyond.  Defining unfamiliar words encountered while reading improves student understanding of word meanings (by 10%) and re-reading the text aids retention of words by 12%5.  I actively involve my students his this process (another retention-booster) by having them record any unknown words on a sticky note as I read the selection (or use one of the much more dramatic readings provided by our textbook).  We spend a few minutes after reading to list all their words on the board. (I also “play a game” where I try to spell it correctly without looking in the book, to model phonetic spelling and focus their attention on this aspect of the new words as well.  They love to “catch” me making a mistake and correct me. Sneaky, sneaky teacher.)

Want to know more about reading aloud to older students?  Check out this article by Valentina Gonzalez:  or this book: 

#3 – Semantic Word Maps (aka “Graphic Organizers”)

Use graphic organizers to encourage students to interact with new vocabulary.  The Frayer model is an effective one, where students list examples and non-examples of the word, as well as key features and characteristics.   I also use a chart like the one modeled here to guide students through Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Acquisition process.  You can even modify and display student-created word maps using a Graffiti Wall like the one pictured to the right.  Here, the Frayer model was adapted to include artistic elements, then displayed so students (and the teacher) could easily review new words (which reinforces retention).

#4 – Context Clues

Nothing new here.  You are probably already teaching your students to use context clues (words surrounding an unfamiliar term that hint at its meaning) to determine the meaning of unknown or multiple meaning words.  Modeling use of all the different types of context clues and pointing out the signal words associated with each type will help them maximize word acquisition during independent reading.  Here are the types of clues I teach and the order I use:  definition, restatement, synonym, comparison, antonym, contrast, example, cause and effect, and inference.  When I first started teaching, I tried to teach all nine types at once.  I quickly learned it is more effective to introduce them one at a time, allowing students to spend more time practicing them and keeping the strategy at the forefront.


#5 – Independent Reading

As noted before, students need repeated exposure to a new word, anywhere from four to eight unique encounters6, to assimilate it into their vocabulary.  And, there’s no better way to ensure students are exposed to new words than by encouraging them to read self-selected titles at a level that is simultaneously accessible and a bit challenging.  (Remember, they must already know 90% to 95% of the surrounding words to make sense of new ones.)

Early in the school year, I teach students the five-finger method for determining if a book is at the “right” level.  Essentially, they read the first page, holding up one finger every time they come across a word they aren’t sure about.  At the end of the first page, if they’re holding up five fingers, the book is too hard.  (“Wrap those five fingers around the book and put it back on the shelf,” I tell them.)  If they’re holding up four fingers, the book will be tough, and may require them to read with a dictionary nearby, but they’ll learn a lot.  Three fingers is ideal, engaging and informative.  Two fingers means the book will be a fairly easy read.  Finally, if they’re holding up just one finger (or worse, none) the book is too easy.  In our class these books are called “brain candy.”  Like candy, you can eat a little bit just for fun, but it’s not a healthy diet.  I allow students to read one brain candy book a year for class credit. (“One for fun, then read to feed.”)

It’s important to track this independent learning, so you and students can review what they’re learning.  In a future post, I’ll share my method for tracking reading and teaching writing at the same time.  But, you could also use one of the graphic organizers mentioned above to have students document new vocabulary words.  Some teachers also like to use a reading journal, reserving space in the back for a student-created glossary.

If it seems like the line between direct and indirect vocabulary instruction just got a bit blurry, that’s because it is.  We need to explicitly teach students vocabulary strategies they can continue to use outside of the classroom.   Throughout their lifetime, they will encounter new words, conversing with friends, reading texts in other content areas, as they learn a new profession someday.   Teaching vocabulary means equipping them with word knowledge they need to immediately make sense of a specific passage, but it also means training them to utilize skills for understanding the tens of thousands of new words—some of which haven’t even been coined yet—the future holds for them.


1 Hirsch, 2003

2 Beck, McKeown, and Kuncan, 2002

3  Texas Reading Initiative, 2002

4 Stahl, 2004

5 Biemiller and Boote, 2006

6 Apthorp et al., 2011

Posted in Games, Vocabulary

Step Up Your Game with Word Ladders

Word games are a wonderful way to incorporate vocabulary activities into your classroom.   Word searches and crossword puzzles reinforce spelling skills, and if you use word definitions as clues rather than giving students a word bank, it aids retention of new vocabulary and encourages critical thinking.  The word ladder is another brain-building activity involving word play.

Word ladders challenge players to identify a string of words all having the same number of letters.  In fact, each word shares all but one letter with the word immediately above or below it.  Using the given clue for each word, players must change just one letter to form a new word that satisfies the given definition or clue.  The simplest puzzles, suitable for younger children or ELLs, involve just three- or four- letter words and have fewer rungs, or words, moving through words like walk… talk…tale… and tile.  More advanced puzzles use longer words with more challenging vocabulary, like halved… halted… halter… falter… filter… and so on.

Here are some word ladders I created for my 6th grade intensive reading classes (where every day either begins or ends with vocabulary practice).  I start them out with four-word puzzles, until they get the hang of it.  Then we progress to five- and six-word ladders.  I let them work with a partner, so students engage one another in dialogue about the target words and definitions (a sneaky way to add an auditory learning component).  The first time they work through a word ladder it might take them 7-10 minutes, but as they gain experience with this activity, they can easily complete one in under five minutes.  For me, this makes word ladders the ideal bell ringer or enrichment activity for fast finishers.  The activity is inherently fun, and students love to compare their finished puzzles with their peers’, so it’s a self-checked learning activity that requires no grading!

You can create your own word ladders with this free puzzle-maker by  If you want to build a puzzle using specific words (or create a themed puzzle) you can generate a word ladder list on this site created by Stanford professor Keith Schwartz.

Looking for something a little more turnkey?  You’ll find read-to-play online word ladders at (for grades K through 3) or  There are word ladder apps for the iPad like this one by Ventura Educational Systems (costs less than $1).

Access print-ready word ladders at  This scholastic resource for grades 4 through 6 is the book that first introduced me (and by extension my students) to word ladders.  I still use it as a go-to for quick bell ringers or extension work.

If you’re looking for a low-prep, high-value vocabulary activity to add to your teaching toolbox, I heartily recommend Word Ladders.

Ladders Carroll

Posted in Vocabulary

Tiny Cards – Big Results

In my previous post I addressed the importance of moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory.  Of course, practice is an important factor, but did you know you can speed up retention by carefully timing that practice?  Spaced repetition uses a research-based formula to present information in the most efficient order for learning.

Now, one of the biggest challenges my struggling readers face is a puny vocabulary.  The deficit impacts their comprehension.  It also causes them to miss test questions measuring concepts they know because they’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary in the answer choices.  As you can imagine, I put a lot of time into developing their vocabulary.  I find I get the most bang for my buck by teaching root words and affixes – since I can teach one root, and they can extrapolate from that the meaning of dozens of new words.

Recently, I discovered a flash-card program that lets me combine the power of spaced repetition with the power of root words… and I was amazed at the results.  In just 15-20 minutes of practice with TinyCards, my intensive reading students learned 25 root words with 80% accuracy.  We continued to revisit the cards from time to time, and on our end-of-quarter test students demonstrated they had not only retained the knowledge of these common roots, they were able to apply it to new word identification with the same 80% accuracy.

The TinyCard program is free, and I’m sharing a link to the root word cards referenced above.  I added simple illustrations to my card set, since illustrations have been proven to increase retention.  If you decide to try it, or if you’ve used these cards before (or a similar program called Anki), I’d love to hear about your results as well.