Roots and affixes: the key to literacy improvement

It goes without saying that there are a lot of words in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary alone contains over two hundred thousand of them, and this is by no means extensive! New words are invented and brought into common or local usage all the time. On National Poetry Day, regional language like ‘cheeselog’, ‘ginnel’ and ‘dimpsy’ were immortalised in their own tailor-made poems. Obviously this is a trivial example, but for teachers who are passionate about literacy improvement, it begs the question: with so many words constantly entering and exiting our lexicon, how is it possible to teach all of them to our students?

The answer is: we can’t. Of course we can’t. What we can do, however, is provide them with the ability to intuit the meanings of new language, whenever they encounter it. For this reason, if you’re to implement a truly effective vocabulary curriculum, it is essential to provide your students with the building blocks of language: root words and affixes

What’s so important about roots and affixes, then?

Whenever we come across an unfamiliar word, we’re normally able to take a pretty good guess at what it means, right? We see how it fits into the context of the sentence, and we try to link it thematically or semantically to the words we already know. But for students with a limited vocabulary, this is very difficult. Somebody who’s only been exposed to a small amount of words in their daily life would, quite naturally, have a less expansive frame of reference. But through roots and affixes, you equip your students with the tools necessary to really break down new language into its composite parts. Once your class understands that the prefix ‘min-’ means ‘little’ or ‘small’, they’ll be able to independently see the links between words like “miniscule”, “minion” and “minor”. Similarly, knowledge of the root ‘phon’ could help them deduce that “telephone”, “microphone” and “cacophony” are all terms related to sound. By providing your students with these basic structures, you empower them to feel confident whenever a strange new word pops up.

How does this fit in with teaching and exams?

In the past, we’ve spoken about how a broad vocabulary is more important than ever since the changes to the English GCSE spec, especially in the English Language papers. When students are expected to show their understanding of completely unseen texts, there’s a good chance they’ll come across words they’ve never encountered before. At this point, direct instruction of common roots and affixes becomes a really crucial method for literacy improvement. By ensuring that our students have a firm understanding of roots and affixes, whilst regularly teaching Tier 2 words, we increase their ability to work out words that might have previously caught them off guard.

But the importance of literacy improvement extends further than the English classroom. When it comes to creating strange new words, scientists take the cake. Made up of words like ‘photosynthesis’, ‘microorganism’, or ‘exothermic’, science is filled with a wide range of tier three, subject-specific vocabulary. Fortunately though, there’s a method to the madness of every nutty professor. Like most words, all these fancy terminologies are made up of quite common roots and affixes, which tell you something about what they mean. If a student already knows that the prefix ‘photo-’ means ‘light’, then it becomes clear that ‘photosynthesis’ is associated with light in some way. Suddenly, all these complex words become a lot less daunting.

Okay, you’ve convinced me! Got any teaching tips?

As a matter of fact, I do – how funny you should ask! Here’s a nifty little exercise that will really help with literacy improvement in the classroom. First, start with some really simple prefixes that your class is likely to be familiar with. Take ‘bi’ and ‘mono’, for example. Next, get the students to write as many words as they can think of that begin with either of these prefixes. Now, simply ask them to try and work out what these prefixes might mean, based on the lists they’ve created. There’s a good chance they’ll have words like ‘bicycle’ or ‘binoculars’. Obviously, binoculars have two lenses, while bicycles have two wheels, so clearly ‘bi-’ must mean ‘two’ or ‘twice’! Then, if your class does well, reward them with a marking sticker. It’s that easy.

Got any other activities that help you get to the root of your students’ literacy struggles? Tell us all about them on Twitter, or simply comment below!

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