Apr 29, 2014 by Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D
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Teaching vocabulary

I think the next game changer when it comes to vocabulary learning, and by extension reading comprehension, will come when we make the direct teaching of morphology or meaning-bearing word patterns a priority in our school curricular programs. In particular, I feel that morphemes derived from Latin and Greek should be given particular emphasis. Why? Did you know that most of our academic words in English are derived from Latin and Greek? Did you know that when new academic and science words are added to English scholars and scientists turn to Latin and Greek roots? Did you know that most longer, multisyllabic words are derived from Latin and Greek? And, did you know that languages, particularly Spanish, are largely derived from Latin? Indeed, knowledge of Latin roots can help Spanish-speaking students bridge into English. For these reasons, the Common Core State Standards specifically and repeatedly mention the teaching of Latin and Greek roots or morphemes as essential for school literacy and vocabulary building.

It’s the multiplier effect that makes teaching Latin and Greek morphemes so powerful and efficient. Phonics teachers know that knowledge of word families or rimes (e.g. all, ing, est) can help students sound out many words such as tall, call, sing, calling, west, crest, tallest, etc. It’s much the same with Latin and Greek morphemes, except that in addition to helping with the pronunciation of words, morphemes can also help students determine the meaningof words. Knowing, for example, that terr(a)-means “land or earth” gives students a powerful clue to figuring out the meaning of words such as terrain, terrace, territory, subterranean, extraterrestrial, terra cotta,and even Mediterranean.Knowledge of one Latin or Greek morpheme can multiply students’ understanding of 20-30 or more English words. And, as I mentioned earlier, many of these words are the academic words from science and the arts that are critical to students’ content or disciplinary literacy comprehension.

If you took Latin (or Greek) in high school or college, I am sure you are aware of how Latin and Greek has connected to your own understanding of English words. Even though you may no longer be fluent in Latin or Greek, I am certain that you are constantly making connections to English words that are based on the Latin or Greek morphemes that you learned years ago.

While I think that teaching Latin and Greek morphemes in high school is valuable, I’d like to see instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes reach all the way down into the primary grades. The brain is a pattern detector. If young children can notice the structural patterns in word families such as –alland –ing,there is every reason to think that they can recognize the morphemic patterns in words as well. Introducing one or two prefixes or roots per week, and helping students notice words that contain those prefixes and roots and how their meanings are related to the roots, can be powerful instruction. Think, for example, of the numerical prefixes – if young students learn the numerical prefixes uni, bi,and tri( one, two,and three) they will be able to not only learn the meaning of unicycle, bicycle,and tricycle, they will also be able to distinguish the differences and similarities in meanings of those words.

This is not beyond the abilities of our younger students. In a recent blog entitled “ Do We Underestimate Our Youngest Learners?” psychologist Daniel Willingham notes and cites research that suggests that young children may have the ability to learn much more than we think - material that may be thought of as “developmentally inappropriate.” Our own work with vocabulary instruction with primary grade students suggests that instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes, even for younger students, may indeed be the ticket to larger and deeper vocabularies; improved abilities to analyze and determine the meanings of challenging words often found in complex texts; and, of course, improved comprehension through new strategies to engage in close reading.

Related reading:

Teach More Vocabulary, Faster, Using the Power of Morphology

Help Your Young Child Build Literacy