Roots and affixes: how they're key to literacy improvement

By Nathaniel Woo

06 Apr 2022

Child playing with building blocks.

It goes without saying that there are a lot of words in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary alone contains over 200,000 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 learners?

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.

Why are roots and affixes important?

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 learners 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 learners with the tools necessary to 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 learners with these basic structures, you empower them to feel confident whenever a new word pops up.

How does this fit in with teaching and exams?

When learners 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 learners have a firm understanding of roots and affixes, while 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 3, subject-specific vocabulary.

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 learner 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.

How do I teach roots and affixes?

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’!

If your class does well, reward them with a marking sticker. It’s that easy.

A full literacy improvement solution

Teach vocabulary, grammar, GCSE English and disciplinary literacy on one platform