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.