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Hotchalk Global

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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

The Sum Unlocks the Whole: Teaching Word Parts

My son attended elementary school when the “whole word” method of learning new words was experiencing resurgence.  By the time he reached upper elementary grades, it was evident that he had neither the ability to phonetically decode words or the knowledge of roots and affixes to assist him in unlocking meaning.  Unfortunately for him, this was about the time that our district experienced yet another budget crunch which decimated the foreign language program including the elimination of most of the Latin program in the district.  While this may be a worst case type scenario, it points out the need for both a well balanced approach to teaching reading in the early years and the need to equip students with the knowledge of key roots and affixes throughout their school years.  Many researchers and literacy experts suggest that the systematic teaching of word parts begins in the fourth grade as attempts to do so earlier may only serve to create confusion for young readers.

There are those who question the value of teaching word roots.  As a classroom teacher who has long taught Latin and Greek roots to my middle school students, I disagree with those researchers who question the value of teaching word roots.   It is important to note that to simply have students memorize a list of word parts and their meanings may not yield desired results.  My experience has been that repeated modeling and direct instruction are necessary for students to begin to transfer and utilize their knowledge of word parts as they encounter new words.  While there is some debate about the value of teaching root words, there seems little question of the importance of teaching common prefixes and suffixes.  Yet this seemingly simple task is often overlooked or the assumption is made that this information will be taught “somewhere else”.  If you’re not yet convinced, consider the findings of Nagy and Anderson (1984) who state “60% of English words have meanings that can be determined from their parts.”
Some states or districts have facilitated this process by identifying specific word parts to be taught at each grade level.  While this vertical articulation is necessary to ensure that a wide variety of word parts are taught in a systematic fashion, it is not necessary to wait for your state or district to create the format for this work; it’s easily accomplished within a school or a system of feeder schools.  Use your standards or standard course of study to begin the process of determining the list of word parts to be taught.  Researchers and literacy experts also have some suggestions that can easily be found by searching the web.  Below are just a few links to consider:
Once you’ve identified the word parts to be taught, determine a protocol for teaching these word parts.  Consistent attention to identifying new words as they are encountered and reminding students of their knowledge of word part meanings will help students form the habit of deconstructing words to make meaning.  Identifying a graphic organizer that can be utilized in multiple content settings will provide an important support for students as they build meaning with word parts and connect words from multiple content areas.  Both Janet Allen and Kylene Beers (among other literacy experts) suggest a root word tree graphic organizer.  The visual of a tree helps reinforce the concept that while the words are all different, they have come from the same source.  This type of graphic could be especially helpful if displayed on a literacy or word wall in the classroom or if each student created his/her own graphic in a vocabulary notebook.
Teaching word parts to students in upper elementary grades and beyond will equip them with knowledge to unlock even the most challenging words.  Try this one and you’ll see what I mean:  pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.


Theresa Hinkle is a retired middle school teacher, literacy facilitator, and an active researcher who conducts workshops on literacy.

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