How I Teach Root Words

I don’t know whether what follows is something that is already widely practised. My impression is that many of us teach form rather than content when it comes to root words. For example, we explain the idea of words consisting of prefixes and suffixes and we show the verb forms of nouns (and so on). I think that’s useful, but I also think we should teach root word content. I’m going to try to explain succinctly how I teach root words and what I hope to achieve by doing it. I have no evidence to support any of this, unfortunately, other than anecdotally.

How I Teach Root Words

I set aside around 30 minutes per week (luckily I had an hour dedicated to literacy) to:

  1. Test the class on 20 root words which they had been using Quizlet to memorise that week (in silence on scrap paper or in the back of their books)
  2. Mark the tests (either swap books or teacher quickly sorts tests into three piles (excellent, ok, fail) from at-a-glance performance.
  3. Take in marks (and action failure or success as appropriate)
  4. Introduce the next 20 root words and explain what they mean and why, exploring examples and the links between them.

This is similar to how, for eight years, my Latin and Greek teachers ensured I kept adding to my vocabulary. Step 4 is an addition in response to what Willingham says about the importance of meaning (as well as repetition) for memory.

I have twelve sets of twenty, which are available for use here:


I adapted these from a list available on the internet, and possibly originating at Michigan State University.

What I Hope to Achieve

  1. To lay the groundwork for easier vocabulary acquisition
  2. To add nuanced understanding of vocabulary
  3. To improve spelling

I suspect that vocabulary is a huge barrier to children understanding and enjoying what they read. There’s a little kick we get from being confident that we have correctly inferred the meaning of a new word from what we already know; there’s a little moment of frustration every time we are confused by a word or concept that a writer expects us to know. I hope that after this, children will be able to make sense of more of what they have read because they know 240 root words, and because in the course of learning those they were exposed to thousands of examples of English words where those roots bear fruit. I hope that these 240 roots will increase the rate at which they make sense of and remember new words because of the meaningful links they can make to their root word knowledge.

In addition, I hope that by seeing the history behind a word, they can add nuance to their understanding of it. For example, by knowing that lapid- means ‘stone’, they can see that ‘dilapidated’ is a good word to use about an old, crumbling house, but not a great word choice for describing (the only example I can think of is Moonfleet-inspired, sorry!) the contents of a coffin. Most of us know (whether or not we had thought about it until now) that dilapidation is something that happens to buildings, but not corpses. I imagine that some of us know that because we’ve seen the word used hundreds of times and built up a map of things it applies to. But some of us, including, I suspect, everyone educated before Latin and Greek were removed from the curriculum, know it because we see a root word within it. Word choices by many writers will have been shaped by a knowledge (and an expected understanding on the part of the readership) of Latin and Greek vocab.

Finally, by seeing words within words, children will, I hope, have more reference points when a spelling eludes them. I suspect that without Latin and Greek, I would be an abysmal speller.

Come to think of it, I don’t think ‘lapid-‘ is included in those 240 words… Which brings me to my final point: everyone is free to use or adapt those lists and I’d be happy to make any additions or corrections you send at me.


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