Authentically Teaching Greek & Latin Roots for Secondary Vocabulary

Greek and Latin roots are sometimes the evil stepsister of vocab. Middle schools that use the Common Core (or any variation of it) must teach affixes, but high schools aren't required to, even though it’s valid vocabulary building.

Affixes don't initially look glamorous to students, either; at first glance, affixes seem boring (a.k.a. memorization), and teachers are wary of how to teach them well (without just lecture and flash cards).

Therefore, instead of viewing affixes as literary molecules - the building blocks to like, everything - classes often just go through the motions (or worse, ignore them completely).

But what if you could teach prefixes, roots, and suffixes in a small amount of time, with higher student buy-in?

Truth be told, I’ve done the full spectrum of bad to good with affix instruction: not enough of it, too much of it, successful flipped classroom, unsuccessful flipped classroom, too much in isolation, etc. Finally, I’ve got a balance that I’m happy with and that is starting to raise student awareness of the words they encounter while reading.

Here's what that process currently looks like in our classroom.

Yes, pretests are dry, but here’s the fun part: when my seventh graders bombed their pretest, they realized that they really DO need this instruction, and now they’re open to learning more about it. There are no egos in the way, and more students are willing to learn. (Steal my editable pretest here.)

Side note: No, I don’t want students to fail or take a hit to their self-esteem… but many older teens and tweens assume they know or remember content that they do not.

Next, we built flip books that contained essential lists of affixes AND practice for EACH chunk of them. Students rotated through stations to do things like…
  • Complete the pages in their flipbooks
  • Practice listing words that USE each affix
  • Talk through how they could remember each one
  • Play with a premade Quizlet set
  • Pick up pre-made flash cards and start quizzing each other

Yes, repetition is necessary, but practice can come from more than just index cards.

Once students start to have a handle on some affixes, it’s time to do something creative (alongside your method of memorization) to make sure these meanings really stick. Start with an intermediate activity like this FREE puzzle challenge!

The application level will look different, depending on your grade level and the extent of your students’ mastery. Here are a few ideas:

  • Mixed Levels of Readiness: My 10-pack of application activities for affixes contains easier activities for students who are still acquiring roots AND more challenging ones for students who are ready, including pages about test prep and Harry Potter! (Try one for FREE here.)
  • Embedded into Vocabulary: Start noticing the roots, prefixes, and suffixes in the vocabulary you assess elsewhere in your class. For example, in my Word of the Day program, we identify at least one affix and/or the language of origin for each word. 
  • Delve into REAL Latin: Don’t run from this idea! Do your students know common “English” phrases that are actually Latin, such as ad lib, per se, nota bene, pro bono, pro tempore, and status quo? If not, then maybe it’s time to build literacy with these common phrases.

The REAL payoff...
...will come in that cute moment when a student raises her hand because she’s just noticed an affix in the text… or when a reluctant reader correctly zeroes in on what “agribusiness” means in a nonfiction article because he knows that “agri” means “farming”... or when a class tells you that they saw a root in their Science class and knew what the word meant.

If students don’t get these affixes from us now, they never will, and it’s one of the best literacy graduation gifts we can give them.

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