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Teaching Word Parts to Enhance Student Understanding

While teaching roots and affixes may help students make sense of unfamiliar words, supplying students with long lists of "word parts" can sometimes be overwhelming and unproductive. In this excerpt from Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools, academic vocabulary expert Robert J. Marzano explains how to focus instruction on those affixes and roots that will give you the most vocab-enriching bang for your buck!

Teaching of roots and affixes has traditionally been a part of regular vocabulary instruction. The logic behind this instructional activity is that knowledge of roots and affixes enables students to determine the meaning of unknown words. Commenting on the work of Dale and O'Rourke (1986), Stahl (1999) explains:

While words like geologist, interdependent, and substandard can often be figured out from context, decomposing such words into known parts like geo-, -logist, inter-, depend, etc., not only makes the words themselves more memorable, but, in combination with sentence context, may be a useful strategy in determining the meaning of unknown words. (p. 44)

Adams (1990) also attests to the logic of teaching word parts, noting that it is important "to teach [students], for example, that such words as adduce, educe, induce, produce, reduce, and seduce are similarly spelled because they share a common meaning element: duce, 'to lead' " (p. 151). However, she adds the following cautionary note: "Although teaching older readers about roots and suffixes of morphologically complex words may be a worthwhile challenge, teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake" (p. 152).

Affixes include prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes commonly augment the meaning of the words to which they are attached. Suffixes commonly change the part of speech of the words to which they are attached. Some vocabulary researchers and theorists argue against teaching long lists of affixes. Indeed, one of the most comprehensive sources of lists of prefixes and suffixes is The New Reading Teacher's Book of Lists (Fry, Fountoukidis, & Polk, 1985). It identifies more than 40 prefixes that indicate where something is (e.g., in-, intra-, off-).

Fortunately, studies have identified those affixes that occur most frequently in the English language. Specifically, White, Sowell, and Yanagihara (1989) identified the most common prefixes based on a study of words in The American Heritage Word Frequency Book (Carroll, Davies, & Richmond, 1971). As described by White and colleagues:

What is striking about these data is that a handful of prefixes account for a large percentage of the prefixed words. The prefix un- alone accounts for 26% of the total. More than half (51%) of the total is explained by the top three prefixes, un-, re-, and in- "not". And with just four prefixes, un-, re-, in- "not", and dis-, one could cover approximately three-fifths of the prefixed words (58%). (pp. 302?303)

They recommend a sequence of six lessons. In the first lesson, the teacher explicitly defines and teaches the concept of a prefix by presenting examples and nonexamples. The goal of this first lesson is for students to understand the difference between genuine prefixed words like unkind and refill as opposed to "tricksters" like uncle and reason. In the second lesson, the teacher explains and exemplifies the negative meanings of the prefixes un- and dis-. The third lesson addresses the negative meanings of in-, im-, ir-, and non-. In the fourth lesson, the teacher explains and exemplifies the two meanings of re- ("again" and "back"). The fifth lesson addresses the less common meaning of un- and dis- ("do the opposite") and the less common meanings of in- and im- ("in or into"). Finally, in the sixth lesson the teacher explains and exemplifies the meanings of en-, em-, over-, and mis-.

White, Sowell, and Yanagihara's study (1989) also identified the most common suffixes. About their findings on suffixes, the researchers note:

It is plain . . . that the distribution of suffixes, too, is not uniform. The first 10 suffixes listed comprise 85% of the sample. Plural and/or third person singular -s/-es alone account for about a third (31%) of the sample. Three inflectional suffixes, -s/-es, -ed, and -ing, account for 65%. In light of this, middle elementary teachers would do well to concentrate on -s/-es, -ed, and -ing. (p. 303)

Again, they recommend a series of lessons. In the first lesson, the teacher explains and exemplifies the concept of a suffix using examples and nonexamples. The next two lessons present suffixed words that show no spelling change from the base words: blows, boxes, talking, faster, lasted, sweetly, comical, rainy. Next, the teacher presents one or more lessons illustrating each of the three major kinds of spelling changes that occur with suffixes: (1) consonant blending (thinner, swimming, begged, funny); (2) y to i (worried, flies, busily, reliable, loneliness); and (3) deleted silent e (baking, saved, rider, believable, refusal, breezy). Finally, a number of lessons provide examples of three inflectional endings (-s/-es, -ed, -ing), and the following derivational suffixes: -ly, -er, -ion, -able, -al, -y, -ness.

Along with teaching affixes, vocabulary instruction commonly teaches root words. Again, a problem with roots is that they are so numerous that instruction cannot cover all of them. Unfortunately, no usable study has identified the most frequent or the most useful roots. Figure 4.7 identifies some common Greek and Latin roots.

In summary, teaching affixes and roots, when done judiciously, can be a useful aspect of direct vocabulary instruction. To this end, research has identified those affixes that are used most frequently.

Excerpted from Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools by Robert J. Marzano.
Copyright 2004 by ACSD. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of ACSD.


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Teaching word roots is just one way to break free of traditional vocabulary instruction.