Prefixes, suffixes, and root words have always been very hard to teach.  I used to think they were rather useless until I read the research supporting the learning of these word parts.  However, I now see that they are integral to developing vocabulary and comprehension in the intermediate grades.  In fact, the intermediate grades are the first time, according to research (Duke), that children are able to actually use these to aid their deciphering of a word.

Vocabulary Acquisition for Intermediate Students
At this stage, the average child has moved past simple letter-sound correspondences in order to decode and has moved on to more complex morphological components (Ehri).  Instead of breaking words down into their respective letters and sounds, the student is capable of using word parts to aid in decoding. Furthermore, at this stage, students are able to use these morphological components for vocabulary purposes as well.  In fact, according to a recent article from Reading Research Quarterly, (Goodwin, Gilbert & Cho 2013), students need these to be able to comprehend texts in middle school, as these words begin to become more “morphologically complex.”  Many of these words from middle school texts may have a similar base or root, but many interchangeable prefixes create more of an obstacle while decoding and comprehending.

Limitations of Words Their Way
Last year, in order to teach these word parts, I used the Words Their Way program, a program I put a great deal of emphasis on for spelling to this day.  In fact, I believe it to be very helpful for spelling.  Last year, when I attended the IRA conference in Chicago, I learned that, in order for sorting words to be truly helpful in developing a child’s spelling, they need to know many of the words–as many as 70% of the words, if not more.  When I first started using this program to learn word parts, I placed a list of words in front of them (from Words Their Way) that pertained to the current prefix, suffix, or root word that I was teaching.  These lists were comprised of many words that the students did not know, and in many cases, words they had never even come in contact with.  They had little background knowledge on the words and few experience to which to connect them, making retention of the word and the word part highly improbably.

Further, these sorts were not helpful, as they would have students compare words with varying root words, prefixes, or suffixes such as inter- and intra-.  While these two lend themselves to integration and comparison, any fourth grader could sort these words based on visual cues alone, which did aid in the learning of the word parts for meaning.  As it turned out, I was doing more teaching of vocabulary in isolation than I was teaching morphological components and strategies in which to use them to aid in decoding and comprehension.

My Solution
I decided to make this a goal of mine this year and to be a bit more purposeful in how I teach these word parts.  I wanted to do it authentically, and I wanted them to begin to use strategies in order to work with these words.  I did not want them memorizing words in isolation and sorting words that were of little to no importance to them.  One of my most helpful tools is a resource that I created using a puzzle piece template, some crayons, and a pair of scissors.  I call these “word puzzles.”

On my word puzzles, I have a variety of prefixes, root words, and suffixes written on the front of the puzzle piece with their respective definitions on the back. Magnets are affixed to these, as well, and posted to my file cabinet so that students may use them as a center.  In an effort to see that work was being accomplished, I also had students use dry erase markers and write the word along with a definition.  Using this tool has provided me several opportunities: (1) Word puzzles have allowed me to model the decomposition and recomposition of words when decoding and defining during shared lessons; (2) It also has allowed the kids to practice using prefixes, suffixes, or root words that we’ve discussed in class with groups and independently; (3) They have given students the opportunity to “play” with words, an integral component to the word learning process.

Shared Reading

Using Word Puzzles to learn “precariously”
during shared reading

I had to begin working with this tool during shared reading.  In order to do so, I would strategically choose words for my word wall that I knew had some of these components.  For instance, I could choose words with the -ous or -ic prefixes.  While I have been pointing these out to the kids in the past, it has been difficult to teach how to truly gain an understanding of a word using the prefixes without some previous knowledge of the root word or base word that the prefix or suffix accompanies.  For instance, we came across the word “domestic” while reading The Sisters Grimm.  While they knew that -ic meant “relating to” (and boy, did they let me know they found that!), they did not know that domest- comes from the Latin word “domus” meaning “home.”  Once they knew this bit of information (which I was able to provide through discussion and the word puzzle), it was easy to figure out that domestic, in the context in which we read it, meant “relating to the home.”  Because of this, I felt it necessary to provide these root words within my word puzzles, so that they could very easily flip the root word over while playing and see the definition of the root word.  While I do not expect mastery on many of these root words, I thought by providing the definitions, I would be scaffolding the activity for them, so that they were able to focus on the more important target: apply the prefixes, suffixes, and root words they already knew while practicing decomposing and recomposing words.  Not only did they learn a new word during this lesson, in particular, but they were able to witness the use of the tool and the modeling of a strategy through which to learn a new word.

Guided and Independent Practice
Part of this process is, of course, guided and independent practice.  During guided groups and literacy centers, the kids are able to play with the word puzzles.  I was able to work with small groups and mimic the process with new words during my guided reading groups.  While some have created real words, some also have created nonsense words.  While I encourage them to look up the words they create to ensure their validity, the mere manipulation of the words has seemed to increase their understanding of these word parts.

Word Play
Due to the number of exposures that is required in order to master the use of a new word, I believe it imperative that students are able to “play” with words during center time. This belief comes from research I’ve read related to vocabulary acquisition.  At this point in the year, I have started to bring out many of my centers that allow kids to play with many of the words on my word wall.  In the past, I’ve mentioned Vocabulationary (my idea) as well as the paint chips from Home Depot (not my idea).    Vocabulationary allows students to practice using the words we’ve already learned (from the word wall), and the paint chips allow for practice with synonyms and “shades” of meaning.  This year, I’ve added word puzzles as well, in order to allow students time to play with prefixes, suffixes, and root words, since that seemed to be lacking from my previous centers.  I’ve found that, not only are students getting more exposure to morphemes, but they have fun in the process.  They enjoy making words and drawing on the file cabinet, and they also find humor in some of the nonsense words they make.

While I have not received my end-of-year vocabulary scores and while I have no quantitative data to support the use of these in the classroom, I have noticed a heightened sense of awareness for these word parts and a more immediate recall of them.  During my shared reading and guided reading lessons, my students frequently clap when they hear these word parts and point them out “on the file cabinet.”  Word Puzzles have managed to add another interesting component to my literacy centers and most definitely fostered a development of my students’ word sense.

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