Root Words to improve the student vocabulary

Roots. When students encounter unknown words such as interdependent, readable,
and substandard, they can break them into prefixes, suffixes, and familiar English
roots, and combine the information this analysis reveals with conceptual
information they find in the context. But what can students do with content-area words such as biosphere, astronomy, superstructure, or deconstruct? In addition to
their prefixes or suffixes, these words contain Greek or Latin roots. Researchers
and educators are divided as to whether it is profitable to students to teach
these roots. Some argue that the modern meanings of words (especially the most
common derived words) often do not reflect the meanings of their historical
roots, and that readers—particularly young students—might be misled by a literal
translation of root to meaning.58 For example, knowing that -mort refers to death
may help students to figure out the meaning of mortal or immortal, but it probably
does not help them to determine the meaning of mortgage or mortify. Likewise,
knowing that saline means salty will probably not help students get the meaning of
salary, even though the words are both derived from the same root, sal. (Salt was
once so valuable that it was used to pay workers.)
On the other hand, having students elaborate basic information makes it more
memorable.59 Therefore, teaching roots may make new words more memorable by
adding a story to their definition.
The solution may be to make a distinction between using word parts as an
independent reading strategy and using word parts as a word-study tool. When
students encounter new affixed words during independent reading, they will
find it useful to be able to take off prefixes or suffixes and identify the word that
remains. But because poor readers tend to be overwhelmed by long words, you
may need to teach them how to use this strategy. For example, you might help
students to figure out the meaning of the word interdependent by teaching them
to cover the prefix inter-, then see if they recognize the rest of the word. If they
do not recognize dependent, you can have them cover the suffix -ent, leaving depend.
Providing students with practice in adding and removing prefixes and suffixes
might also be useful. For example, you might take the root word dependent and add
prefixes such as in- or non- to make new words.
Teaching students to further breaking down words into Latin or Greek
roots is not likely to be a helpful independent reading strategy. We doubt, for
example, that a struggling reader will be helped by breaking depend down
further into de- and pend, even if he or she could assign these word parts
meanings such as down and hang.
For the purposes of word study, however—when students have already been
provided the meaning of the word—knowing the story or the history of the word
may well make it more memorable.


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