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February 1, 2017

The Roots of Comprehension

Studying Latin and Greek word origins makes vocabulary instruction resonate.

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Research going back seven decades demonstrates that vocabulary knowledge is strongly associated with proficiency in reading comprehension. Large vocabularies lead to better reading performance (Baumann et al., 2002; Davis, 1944). Amazingly, more than 80 percent of students' reading comprehension test scores can be accounted for by vocabulary knowledge (Reutzel & Cooter, 2015). Yet, the most recent assessment of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students' vocabulary development shows that at all three grade levels, U.S. students have demonstrated no improvement at all in their vocabulary knowledge since 2009 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

According to vocabulary scholar Margaret McKeown, very little vocabulary instruction happens in many U.S. classrooms (Banchero, 2013). Where vocabulary instruction does occur, students often learn to view it as painful and meaningless: weekly word lists and quizzes. Students may memorize words, spellings, and definitions, but these are quickly forgotten. The result of either approach—benign neglect or rote memorization—is stagnation in our students' vocabulary knowledge.

Content-Area Vocabulary: Slippery and Essential

Clearly, there is a need for improved vocabulary instruction across grade levels and content areas. Content-area words represent concepts that are integral to a field of study, yet mastering such vocabulary can be challenging for students because it involves learning new words for new ideas. Limited understanding of content-area vocabulary can lead to misconceptions and gaps in students' learning. It can hinder future learning (Blachowicz & Obrochta, 2005) as students try to build new understandings on existing knowledge. Moreover, students encounter content-area vocabulary infrequently outside of school, so they're unlikely to learn these terms indirectly (Worthington & Nation, 1996). Teachers face the dual task of helping students master new conceptual knowledge and teaching the terminology that goes with it.

Content-area vocabulary is abstract and technical, and it assumes multiple meanings in various contexts—all of which adds cognitive complexity to reading and learning. Students studying the American Revolution, for example, learn vocabulary terms such as revolution, regiment, and movement. Consider the different meanings, both literal and figurative, two of these terms assume in other content areas. In science, a revolution involves the literal act of the earth turning around the sun, whereas in social studies, it describes an act in which power is figuratively turned back to the people. Similarly, a movement in the context of the American Revolution refers to the colonists' efforts to establish independence from Britain. But in music class, students study movements in a symphony; in science they learn about tectonic movements; and in physical education class, they engage in physical movement.

The multiple meanings of many academic words are domain specific. So knowledge of a word in one context may not support understanding of that word in another context. Students must learn to be flexible thinkers and develop an understanding of words that extends beyond single definitions. Likewise, teachers must ensure that vocabulary instruction is multidimensional and extends beyond dictionary definitions (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2009; Newton, Padak, & Rasinski, 2008).

The Power of Roots

Basing vocabulary study on Greek and Latin roots can help. The academic register is vast and complex but not haphazard: The majority of academic words are connected by morphemic (meaning-based) patterns derived largely from Latin and Greek lexicons (Edwards, Font, Baumann & Boland, 2004; Graves, 2004; Padak, Newton, Rasinski, & Newton, 2008). Scholars estimate that up to 90 percent of words with more than one syllable have origins in Latin and that many of the remaining multisyllabic words share roots in Greek (Padak et al., 2008). These morphological patterns provide the foundation of much content-area vocabulary, as up to 76 percent of commonly occurring academic words share morphological roots (Coxhead, 2000; Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008). By analyzing these patterns, students can make connections between words that are semantically and conceptually related (Baumann, et al., 2002; Edwards, et al., 2004).

Teachers at all grade levels and content areas can provide instruction in Greek and Latin roots to develop students' vocabulary. A morphological approach to vocabulary instruction emphasizes teaching affixes (prefixes, bases, and suffixes) that occur commonly in content-area words. This generative approach teaches meanings for key words while helping students learn to analyze and infer meaning from the structure of words in general. Students can then use this understanding to independently infer the meanings of new words they encounter. This approach may be particularly beneficial for students who find reading difficult (Kirk & Gillon, 2009; Nelson, Dole, Hosp, & Hosp, 2015) and can act as a learning bridge for English language learners whose first language is also based on Latin or Greek, such as Spanish.

The generative nature of Latin and Greek word roots gives them great potential for improving vocabulary. Knowledge of one root can lead to understanding of many English words. Take, for example, the Latin root trac(t). Knowing that this word root means to drag, pull, or draw, students will better understand why a tooth extraction means to have a tooth pulled, distracted means to have your attention pulled or drawn away, a contraction can refer to muscles pulling together or two words being pulled into one, and a tractor is a vehicle used for pulling or dragging farm machinery.

Many teachers recognize the importance of using Latin and Greek word patterns to build vocabulary, but are still developing their own understanding of morphemic patterns and how they can use these patterns to expand students' word knowledge. Fortunately, teachers can tap online resources to identify roots, provide definitions, and find lists of English words containing key roots (see "Resources for Learning Your Roots" for some of our favorite online resources).

Working It In

It's not hard to bring Latin and Greek word roots into a classroom. The first step is to find the time. We recommend devoting 10 minutes per day at least three days per week; this should let you teach one or two word roots per week. Consider trying the following routine.

Day 1. Introduce the Root

Focus on one or two roots per week. English language arts teachers might check the content covered in math, science, or social studies to find roots that are pertinent to students' current instruction in these areas. (See Figure 1 for a starter list of word roots related to the content areas.) Display the root and its essential meaning on a large classroom chart or screen. Brainstorm with students 5–10 words that contain that particular root, and write the words and their definitions on the chart. Keep the chart posted so you and your students can refer to it throughout the next several days of instruction.

Figure 1. A Few Content-Area Word Roots from Latin (L) and Greek (G)

Math

angl-, angul-= angle, corner (L)

dia-and per-= through, across, thorough (L)

frag-, fract-= break, broken (L)

graph-, gram-= write, draw (G)

integer-, integr-= whole (L)

later-= side (L)

meter-, metr-= measure, meter (G)

peri-(G) and circum-(L) = around

Science

aster-, astr(o)-(G) and stell-(L) = star, celestial body

bi(o)-= life, live (G)

cardi(o)-= heart (G)

cry(o)-= cold, frost (G)

ge(o)-(G) and terr-(L) = earth

hem(o)-, hemat(o)-, -emia, -emic= blood (G)

hydr(o)-(G) and aqu(a/e)-(L) = water

spher-= ball, globe; region, zone (G)

Social Studies

arch-, -archy= leader, first, oldest (G)

bell-= war and pac-= peace (L)

civ-, cit-, civil-= citizen and milit-= soldier, fighter (L)

-crat, -cracy= rule, ruler (G)

dic-, dict-= say, speak, tell (L)

equ(i)-, egal-= equal, fair (L)

popul-(L) and dem(o)-(G)= the people

urb-, urban-(L) and poli-, -polis(G) = city

human-(L) and anthrop(o)-(G) =mankind, human

Lead students in a discussion of how the word meanings contain the essential meaning of the word root. For example, if the root of the week is terr(a), meaning earth or land, help students see how words such as territory, terrace, terrain, subterranean, and Mediterranean refer to earth or land in some essential way.

Day 2. Divide and Conquer

Provide 5–10 words that contain the target root(s) for the week. Guide students in breaking each word into its essential parts (prefix plus base word, base word plus suffix, or word and inflected ending) and identifying the meaning of the parts. Then, discuss how a reader might get to the word's meaning by considering the meanings of individual word parts.

Here's an example using the phil(e) word root:

Bibliophile: biblio = books; phile = love(r). Lover of books.

Philosopher: phil = love; soph = wisdom; -er = a person. A person who loves wisdom.

Philanthropy: phil = love; anthropy = humanity, people. The love of people.

Philadelphia: phil = love; adelphia (adelphos) = brother. City of brotherly love.

Over time, help students see that new concepts can be created by adding the meanings of word parts together.

Day 3. Read and Reason

Vocabulary is important to the extent that it helps readers make meaning of texts. On the third day, students read and respond to passages that contain one or more words including the targeted word root, using their newfound vocabulary to construct meaning as they read. You might write a passage that highlights key words, have students write one, or use something you find. Here are two passages,1 the first for older students and the second for younger, from our own work (Rasinski, Padak, Newton, & Newton, 2014a, 2014b):

Segregation

We all know that racial segregation is outlawed in the United States—and for good reason. When a society segregates people according to their race, an injustice is committed against them. The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But a racially segregated society treats citizens unequally. In a segregated society, some people are denied basic human rights, such as the right to equal opportunities in housing, employment, or education. Not so long ago, some people were even denied the right to sit at a table in the same restaurant with others of a different race! Racially segregated societies do not provide equal access to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Far from honoring the dignity of each and every human being, segregation clusters people into "herds." This is what the Latin base greg- means: In segregation, people are "herded" into separate clusters and kept apart from one another. A segregated society can never be an equal society. This is why U.S. law mandates racial desegregation.

Do you agree that a "segregated society can never be an equal society"? Why?

Know your Fours!

Four quarters make a dollar

Four singers a quartet

Four quarts make a gallon

Quart means four I'll bet.

Four sides make a quadrilateral

Four muscles make quadriceps

Now we know that quad means four

So how many babies make quadruplets?

This sequence allows students to experience word roots across time and in a variety of ways. Of course, you can always expand such lessons beyond three class sessions, trying activities like completing sentences with relevant words, playing word games, and assessing students' knowledge of word roots.

Teacher Testimonials

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of word-roots instruction with contextual analysis in primary and intermediate grade classrooms, in various content areas, and with struggling readers (Baumann et al., 2002; Biemiller, 2005; Harmon, Hedrick & Wood, 2005; Porter-Collier, 2010).

Lisha Cabral (2015) studied elementary science teachers who: collaborated with English language arts teachers to teach Greek and Latin roots. These teachers' students were better able to understand the science terms provided than students who didn't receive such instruction. Moreover, students who were taught word roots were more able to hypothesize the conceptual meaning of newly introduced science vocabulary than were students who were not provided with word-root instruction.

Teacher testimonials paint a similar picture. Joanna Newton has noticed that roots-based instruction improved her 3rd grade students' understanding of content-area vocabulary. One student who was learning English as an additional language made a powerful connection between the Latin prefix e/ex and the word erosion during a science unit on weathering. The class had spent several days studying and exploring the Latin prefix e/ex, meaning "out" or "away from." At the end of a lesson on soil erosion, a student named Aaliyah called out, "Erosion! Ms. Newton, is that e in erosion from ex?"

Newton responded that she was unsure. She invited students to share their thinking on the question: Was the e in erosion from e/ex? Why did they think so? Was there a meaning of "out" or "away from" in the word? The students reasoned that the e in erosion was from this prefix because soil was taken away from one place and moved to another. Newton invited Aaliyah to confirm the class's thinking by looking the word up, and Aaliyah reported the next day that the class's reasoning had been correct.

Middle school teacher and reading coach Hillary Loftus recently told us:

A solid background in the meaning of word roots helps all of my students with their reading comprehension. Recognizing and knowing how to apply root meanings is especially valuable for my students whose vocabularies are not as broad as I would like them to be. Often these students will encounter a word in their reading that initially seems intimidating and unsolvable. They used to freeze, give up, or just say the first few sounds and make something up. If a student can recognize the meaning of just one part of a difficult word, this provides him a toehold on the new vocabulary. Students don't give up as easily because they already know something about the word.

Words in English aren't random strings of letters; their patterns have logic and meaning, much of which comes from Latin and Greek. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of this link and unable to use it to learn new words and concepts. Let's help our students—and ourselves—gain this secret knowledge about English vocabulary.

Resources for Learning Your Roots

References

Banchero, S. (2013, January 4). Students fall flat in vocabulary test. Wall Street Journal.

Baumann, J., Edwards, E. C., Font, G., Tereshinski, C., Kame'enui, E., & Olejnik, S. (2002). Teaching morphemic and contextual analysis to fifth-grade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 37, 150–176.

Biemiller, A. (2005). Size and sequence in vocabulary development: Implications for choosing words for primary grade vocabulary. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 223–242). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher, P. (2009). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Obrochta, C. (2005). Vocabulary visits: Virtual field trips for content vocabulary development. The Reading Teacher, 59(3), 262–268.

Cabral, L. (2015). The acquisition of science vocabulary: A morphological approach to content area literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Boston, MA: Northeastern University.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213–238.

Davis, F. (1944). Fundamental factors in reading comprehension. Psychometrika, 9(3), 185–197. Doi: 10.1007/BF02288722

Edwards, E. C., Font, G., Baumann, J. F., & Boland, E. (2004). Unlocking word meanings: Strategies and guidelines for teaching morphemic and contextual analysis. In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame'enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (pp. 159–179). New York: Guilford Press.

Graves, M. F. (2004). Teaching prefixes: As good as it gets? In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame'enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (pp. 81–99). New York: Guilford Press.

Harmon, J. M., Hedrick, W. B., & Wood, K. D. (2005). Research on vocabulary instruction in the content areas: Implications for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 21, 261–280.

Hiebert, E. H., & Lubliner, S. (2008). The nature, learning and instruction of general academic vocabulary. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (pp. 106–129). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Kirk, C., & Gillon, G. T. (2009). Integrated morphological awareness intervention as a tool for improving literacy. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 40, 341–351.

Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, 3, (pp. 269–284). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2015). The nation's report card, 2013: Vocabulary. Washington, DC: Institute of Educational Sciences. Retrieved from www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2013/vocabulary/#knowledge

Nelson, K. L., Dole, J. A., Hosp, J. L., & Hosp, M. K. (2015). Vocabulary instruction in K–3 low-income classrooms during a reading reform project. Reading Psychology, 36, 145–172.

Newton, E., Padak, N., & Rasinski, T. V. (2008). Evidence-based instruction in reading: A professional development guide to vocabulary. New York: Pearson.

Padak, N., Newton, E., Rasinski, T., & Newton, R. M. (2008). Getting to the root of word study: Teaching Latin and Greek word roots in elementary and middle grades. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (pp. 6–31). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Porter-Collier, I. M. (2010). Teaching vocabulary through the roots approach in order to increase comprehension and metacognition. Unpublished masters degree project. Akron, OH: University of Akron.

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2008). Greek and Latin roots: Key to building vocabulary. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2014a). Getting to the roots of social studies vocabulary. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2014b). Getting to the roots of content vocabulary. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.

Reutzel, D. R., & Cooter, R. (2015). Teaching children to read: The teacher makes the difference, (7th ed.). New York: Pearson.

Worthington, D., & Nation, P. (1996). Using texts to sequence the introduction of new vocabulary in an EAP course. RELC Journal, 27(2), 1–11.

End Notes

1 Excerpts from Getting to the Roots of Social Studies Vocabulary and Getting to the Roots of Content Vocabulary, copyright © 2014 Shell Education. Used with permission.

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