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Vocab activities for your classroom

Prefixes: Windows into Unfamiliar Words

As teachers begin to grapple with the demands of the Common Core State Standards, they may be aware of its major instructional shifts — its emphasis on reading informational texts, writing text-based arguments, and comprehending higher levels of text complexity. However, they may be overlooking a discrete language standard living in the shadows of those major shifts:

Use common, grade-appropriate Greek and Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., telegraph, photograph, autograph). (link)

Just because most American students no longer take Latin (and even fewer take Ancient Greek), it doesn't mean that we are off the hook for teaching to this standard. And I would argue that identifying affixes and roots as either Greek or Latin in origin is almost beside the point. What this standard boils down to is teaching students to confront unfamiliar vocabulary – one word part at a time. One of the best ways to start instituting this standard is at a word's beginning, by showing students how to decode the meaning of a multisyllabic word by first unpacking its meaning through its prefix.

Start with the known.

Instead of starting a prefix lesson by explicitly teaching students the meaning of a common prefix, lead students to first rediscover what they already know. Chances are if a student meets an unfamiliar word that begins with a common prefix, they will know other words beginning with that same prefix.

For example, students may not be familiar with the meaning and usage of the word antithesis and they may not even realize that it begins with the prefix anti- due to its pronunciation (with the stress on the "tith"), but they are surely familiar with other words beginning with the prefix anti-.

Encourage students to use the wildcard search on the Visual Thesaurus by typing "anti*" into the search box and then scrolling through a pull-down list of different words that begin with anti- . Ask students, "Do you know any of these words? Which ones? What do many of these words have in common?"

Draw some conclusions.

Encourage students to draw some conclusions based on their prefix research. If students realize that all of the anti- words they know are negative words, they can expect that an unfamiliar anti- word will have a negative element as well.

Put it all together.

Separate the prefix from its base word, and have students brainstorm associations with the base word. (In the case of antithesis, students may be familiar with the concept of a "thesis statement" as a writer's main point, the essence of their message.)

Once the word parts have been investigated, have students try to figure out how the different parts come together to make meaning. Students' homespun definitions may sound awkward (e.g., antithesis: "something that goes against a main point"), but that's ok. It's a necessary step in meaningful word exploration to develop a theory about a word's meaning before confirming or debunking that theory by looking the word up in a dictionary.

View it in context.

After students have concocted working definitions of a word, have them test out their theories by evaluating a handful of sentences containing the word. If students visit the Vocabulary.com word page for antithesis, they will find oodles of sentence examples that can teach the meaning of antithesis through example:

Those students familiar with Susan Boyle will understand how she is the antithesis of the modern celebrity (see the first sentence above), and might in turn realize that the word antithesis is used to represent the opposite of something or someone.

Reinforce with word play.

Paying attention to word parts should become a consistent thread throughout your class discussions and activities. Of course, the in-depth modeling of word analysis outlined in this article doesn't need to happen over and over again in your classroom. (Who has time for that?!) But you can create an atmosphere of word part consciousness and occasionally take time out to play with the possibilities. This lesson plan "Take the Prefix Challenge!" challenges students to compete with one another to find out who can assemble the largest number of viable words by combining a set of prefixes with a set of words.

Think outside of your discipline.

One bold emphasis of the Common Core State Standards is the notion that literacy is not the sole responsibility of ELA teachers. In fact, the CCSS entitles the half of the standards not addressing math as "English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects."

When encountering a prefix like anti-, point out that students should be on the lookout for words beginning with anti- throughout and beyond the school day. They might learn about how an antibody fights infection in Biology, or study how anti-Semitism fueled the Holocaust in Social Studies, or they may read a review of a film with an anticlimactic ending. When students begin to make these connections on their own, you know that your lessons on word part consciousness have paid off.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 4th 2012, 2:21 PM
Comment by: ThomasK
This is an interesting exercise indeed. I try to do things like that in Dutch, not with Latin words, but with phrasal verbs in Dutch. Prefixes - such as 'af' (off), 'ont-' (de-), etc - and knowledge of the 'base' verb allows them to guess the meaning of certain new words.
Sunday October 7th 2012, 1:27 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A true prescription for learning language; ofcourse it is for English language only I think. Well many words are neutral and in that case you can not apply identical drugs to cure.
I was just curious about other languages. French/German or Spanish I think it's okay to use the same rule but not for like Chinese characters or for Arabic . I like to take initiative for setup a VT type word learning center for my native language Bengali. Do you have any suggestion for me from where should I begin this project?
Many thanks .
Wednesday October 24th 2012, 8:56 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
So true! And even as an adult who was born into the English language, I find myself surprised by related word pairs, where one word in the pair has no prefix, like guise anddisguise, or merit anddemerit. I knew those word pairs for a loooong time before I realized they bore the same base word and had a shared but not exactly reciprocal meaning.

So much fun to puzzle around with prefixes.

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