By Alice Thomas
Direct instruction of the most common morphemes (prefixes, suffixes, and root words) can greatly enhance and build the vocabulary and reading comprehension of all students, especially struggling readers. Once students become familiar with the most common morphemes, they can then use their knowledge of word parts to help determine meaning when they encounter unknown words.
Morphemes, the smallest units of a word that have meaning, are commonly divided into prefixes, suffixes, and root words. The word misspelled, for example, is comprised of three morphemes: the prefix mis, the base word spell, and the suffix ed.
Because some students may not realize that they can use their knowledge about how to divide words into parts to gain word meanings, it is important to provide direct instruction to ensure that students develop their ability to analyze the structure of multisyllabic words. Strugglingreaders, and students with learning disabilities in particular, may be lacking in word analysisskills.
We have scientific evidence that teaching morphemes to students increases vocabulary and reading comprehension. In one study, third graders who were given training on the nine mostcommon prefixes and a strategy for decomposing words into roots and suffixes outperformeda control group on several measures of word meanings (White, Sowell and Yanagihara, 1989).Researchers concluded that teaching at least the top nine prefixes, if not all 20, to middleschool students would pay dividends in increased vocabulary learning.
It is never too early to introduce students to meaningful word parts. For example, teachers of pre-kindergarten students can readily point out the meaning of the prefix pre, meaning before to their students, as in pre-kindergarten, prevent, and preview. Further, pre-kindergarten students can easily grasp the meaning of un, meaning not, as in untied (My shoe came untied), uncover, unlock and unsafe.
Students in lower elementary school can be taught to add prefixes and suffixes to short Anglo-Saxon base words and discuss the meaning. Teachers can start the thought process of combining by having students identify and then form compound words (e.g., football, cupcake) and then move students to affixing prefixes and suffixes to base words, such as view: preview, review, viewed, viewing, and viewer.
Students in upper elementary school and the secondary grades will benefit as they learn the meanings of additional affixes and common Latin and Greek roots. For example, knowing that spect comes from Latin and means to see, to watch will help students to understand the meaning of inspect, inspector, spectator, introspective and spectacles. Knowing the Greek root graph, meaning to write or to draw opens the reader to multiple words such as autograph, photograph, telegraph, lithograph, biography, and graphite. Knowing that bio means life will help them to unlock the meaning of biology, biography, autobiography, bionic, antibiotic, and biometrics.
A user-friendly resource for teaching word parts is Vocabulary Through Morphemes by Susan Ebbers.
The PDF link below contains a compilation of common prefixes, roots and suffixes. The compilation is by no means exhaustive; it should be used only as a place to start.
Carroll, J.B., Davies, P., & Richman, B. (1971). The American Heritage word frequency book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ebbers, S. (2011). Vocabulary through morphemes. 2nd edition. Longmont, CO: SoprisWest.
Mountain, L. (2005, May). ROOTing Out Meaning: More Morphemic Analysis for Primary Pupils. The Reading Teacher, 58(8), 742749.
White, T.G., Sowell, J., & Yanagihara, A. (1989). Teaching elementary students to use word part clues. The Reading Teacher, 42, 302-308.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Alice Thomas is president and CEO of the Center for Development and Learning (CDL).