Monday, August 18, 2014

Greek and Latin Roots

I have often heard both sides of the debate- "Latin helped me understand English" and "Latin did not help me understand English." In Greek & Latin Toots: Keys to Building Vocabulary, Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Rick M. Newton and Evangeline Newton make the case that learning Latin roots is a crucial tool for students trying to learn the academic vocabulary that we know is essential to school success. Throughout the book they cite the fact that 90% of all English words of two or more syllables are based on either Latin or Greek roots. Knowing this, how can people say that knowing Latin did not help them learn vocabulary? This question is not addressed in the book, but I believe it boils down to a) they were not taught to look for cognates, b) they were not taught how to use what they learned in Latin and apply it to English vocabulary and c) they did not learn Latin very well.

The book spells out its rationale for using root study to expand academic vocabulary. Other than the high percentage of English that is based on the roots, they note that current memorize for the test methods are unsuccessful and that vocabulary learning is essential to school outcomes.

The authors go into an in depth discussion of what is a root- base, prefix and suffix, and some of the rules for dividing words up and how prefixes in particular are added to bases. While the authors skimp in the area of suffixes, their role in changing the part of speech rather than the meaning of the word makes their job easier for people comprehend. For me, I learned that when using roots to define words, you must start with the base and move to the prefix (sort of backwards). Presoak means to wet before washing. I also learned about the assimilation of prefixes and why the change or have different forms for the same meaning and how it impacts spelling. (For example, words with double consonants near the beginning often have a prefix that has been changed to assist with euphony and pronunciation. con + rect = correct ) As a book and word lover I found this interesting.

The authors also discuss using dictionaries as sources of etymology. This helps us understand spelling and meaning at a deep underlying level. I taught in one school where the staff were offered a variety of choices for a reward and selected an unabridged dictionary. During their break times they would often gather and explore the origins of words they were curious about. While the English teachers may have spearheaded this activity, all the staff participated. having such curiosity about the words they used helped them be more specific about the words they used and helped them with vocabulary instruction they delivered.

The authors list games and describe examples of learning activities that involve word study and practice. While this book does provide an example of how to teach the words, Marzano's writings on vocabulary instruction provide greater depth of detail if one is curious. I very much enjoyed the variations that were provided for the activities. I think the odd word out game could be interesting when applied to root word study. I have used variations of this activity for vocabulary instruction in math, science and social studies classes. One example was:
  • precook
  • preheat
  • premixed
  • pretest                                                                                  (p. 79)
Identify the odd word out and explain why. Is it pretest because it has nothing to do with cooking? Premixed because it is the only word with a suffix? Preheat because it has a long vowel sound? Precook because it is the only one with a double letter? Accept different answers because they all involve understanding the words and thinking about them.

One implied thought in the book is that direct instruction of roots is a slow process. Teaching a list of roots and expecting students to memorize it for the test is no different from common ineffective vocabulary teaching methods. If you present one root a week and provide exposure to and focus on that one root at a time, you can vastly increase student understanding. To master the common roots would require a cross grade level plan with reinforcement of learned roots along the way. This is an achievable goal, it has minimal cost and can provide huge outcomes.

The book includes excellent appendixes. There are resources for teachers and students, a list of common roots, lists of non-Latin or Greek words in English and ideas for professional development. The later would be a good way for a group to begin thinking about vocabulary issues with their students even without reading the book.

We know our students need to expand their vocabulary. The CCSS reaffirm this concept with their emphasis on academic vocabulary. Many researchers have demonstrated the importance of vocabulary to comprehension. We need to help our students understand the multitude of words our common English vocabulary is comprised of. This book presents one tool for such instruction.

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