Get to the Root of It

Get to the Root of It

by Kristi McCullough

While receiving Literacy Collaborative training, the professors always told the class that word-study instruction needed to be “powerful” and “generative.”

I remember thinking to myself, I know “powerful” word study means doing hands-on activities and attaching the words to authentic text. But what does “generative” mean?  And what does that have to do with learning words?

Upon reading Greek & Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary (Shell Education) by Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Rick M. Newton, and Evangeline Newton, I learned that we cannot possibly teach students every word in the English language.  However, by teaching a few word-study principles, we can help students unlock the meanings of countless new words they come across in their reading.

As elementary teachers, we present numerous lessons and activities for phonics principles and decoding strategies in word study. However, a great deal of power lies in also teaching Greek and Latin roots (i.e., prefix, suffix, base).

Previously, such instruction was saved for advanced courses or high school, but knowing the relevant research and its striking statistics has caused a change in our thinking.

  • Over 90% of the words in the English language with more than one syllable are Latin-based. The other 10% are Greek-based. Meaning, that every two-syllable word (or bigger) is comprised of word parts that carry meaning.
  • Each word part taught (i.e., prefix, suffix, base) has the potential to unlock 5-30 new words for students. By explicitly teaching the meaning of one root word to students, teachers potentially expand students’ vocabulary by upwards of 30 new words.
  • If a single teacher provided instruction on 30 roots, that would unlock the meanings of 150-1,000 new words for students per school year.
  • If every teacher in grades K-12 taught 30 roots per year, students’ accessible vocabulary would grow between 2000 and 13,000 words by graduation!

This is the power of the generative principle. Possessing knowledge of one word part generates knowledge to unlock many more words.

Convincing teachers to target root instruction is not difficult, but it does result in a common question. Which roots should I teach?  Is there a list for my grade level?

The Word Parts To Teach resource consists of beginning or advanced prefixes, suffixes, and bases. They are listed alphabetically and include the meanings and examples of each.

The key is to determine which 30 roots your students need this year. Don’t spend time working with roots they already know.  However, don’t skip over the most common roots because you assume students have mastered them. That said, consider the following when selecting this year’s word parts.

  • Check the Standards. Look through the Vocabulary Acquisition and Use Standard to see specifics on a grade-level focus for the types of roots students need to notice when reading and writing.
  • Gauge the background knowledge of students in the class. With the Word Parts to Teach resource in hand, check the last page for the most common roots in the English language. Use this page to note priority roots for instruction with primary students, as well as English language learners. Continue to check the list for Beginning prefixes, suffixes, and bases to determine which roots students need to know. If students are older or more advanced, check the list of Advanced roots that correspond with their content-area vocabulary.
  • Consider topics taught in content areas beyond language arts. Look for concepts covered that might include word parts. Certain social studies and science concepts lend themselves to specific roots (e.g., liber/free, alt/high, ). Look through this year’s math vocabulary, too. There are often word parts that signify the meaning of numbers (e.g., milli, centi), shapes (e.g., gon, hedra, etc.), and functions (e.g., sub, multi, div, add, etc.).

Taking the time to select an exclusive list for your students ensures their knowledge of words will increase. Limiting the number to just 30 new roots for the school year allows students to have adequate classroom time to engage in powerful, hands-on activities that quicken the retrieval of roots when reading and writing.

Generative instruction is not about just giving students a list of terms to memorize for the weekly test. Instead, generative instruction is about showing students how to use their acquisition of known roots to solve new words on the run.


With over 20 years in education, Kristi McCullough has been a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, and Literacy Coordinator.  She is currently a literacy consultant with Smekens Education, helping teachers across the Midwest implement a balanced literacy approach.

March 8th, 2019|Classroom Teaching, General Education|Comments Off on Get to the Root of It