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Decoding Vocabulary Words: Teaching Root Words, Prefixes, and Suffixes in Upper Elementary

Root words have the power to decode the English language. Teaching students root words gives new English readers the ability to work through words to seek meaning rather than leaning on the dictionary (or Siri) to provide them with a quick definition.

The ‘Root’ of Change

In a contrast to typical ‘sit and get’ learning, contemporary education is leaning more and more toward problem-solving and helping students seek creative solutions to understand the world around them. In math, we no longer want students to have the right answer; instead, we strive for students to test out different methods for finding the right answer. Talking, questioning, and developing understanding is the basis of this new educational model.

Root Words: Where Math and English Collide

Problem-solving easily transfers to math as the ‘problems’ are clearly defined. Often we don’t think of ELA and problem-solving as being connected, but more and more we have noticed that approaching the English language like a code actually helps students to understand it better.

The words and even grammar we teach are often based in equations that follow equations and sequences. 

prefix + root= word 

Sentence + Comma + Conjunction + Sentence = Compound Sentence

It’s kind of like the whole teach a man to fish thing. Teach a kid a single word, and they’ll know…well, one word, but teach them the pieces of the word, and they’ll begin to decipher hundreds of others.

Now, we’re not saying that English is entirely made up of strict rules. Anyone who has ever taught sight words knows that sometimes there are no rules. Despite the exceptions, learning typical rules and sequences will still help our young learners when faced with an unknown word while they read.

So how do we teach students to decipher the ‘code’ of a word?

We teach them the parts of the word: the roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Greek and Latin Roots to Teach in Upper Elementary

What roots should we be teaching in upper elementary?  Here is a list of my top 20.

  • Astro = Star
  • Min = Smaller, Less
  • Chron = Time
  • Aqu = Water
  • Photo = Light
  • Magn = Big
  • Geo = Earth
  • Circum = Around
  • Therm = Heat
  • Fract, Frag = To break
  • Auto = Self, Same
  • Struct = Build, Put together, Arrange
  • Psych = Mind
  • Bene = Good, Well
  • Pod, Ped = Foot
  • Ann, En = Year, Yearly
  • Hemi, Semi = Half
  • Scrib, Script = To write
  • Cycl = Circle, Wheel
  • Tract = To pull

I have always taught these roots (plus several others) in two levels. In our Level 1 activities, we focus on becoming familiar with these roots on a recall level. In our Level 2 activities we take many of these same roots but we utilize full sentences as students seek to decipher the meaning of unknown words. Check out our many Greek and Latin Roots activities below!

Greek and Latin Root Words Activities and Resources for Upper Elementary

Interactive Gameboards and Review Games

Greek and Latin Roots Game | Digital Review Activity Level 1

Greek and Latin Roots Digital Game | Digital Review Activity Level 2

Greek and Latin Roots Game: U-Know {Vocabulary Game}

Digital Puzzles

In addition to the review games, we also have created digital puzzles where students can work on their roots online. These digital puzzles are great for independent or partner work, early finishers, or even during distance learning, and they work on any browser, on any device with an internet connection! 

Greek & Latin Roots Digital Puzzles | Distance Learning

Greek & Latin Roots Digital Puzzles LEVEL 2 | Distance Learning

Game Shows

Lastly, if you are looking to review root words before a test, or you just want a little refresher after a break, the Greek & Latin Roots Game Show is both self-checking and no prep! With 25 questions and jeopardy style, this game show works for up to 6 competitors or teams. Since the Game Show is based on presenting slides, it also makes a great activity for digital or virtual learning.

Roots words are only one part of the equation though. To get a full understanding of how a word can be decoded, students also must understand prefixes and suffixes. 

20 Prefixes and Suffixes to Teach in Upper Elementary

  • Bi- = Two
  • -able = Can be done
  • Extra- = Beyond
  • -en = Made of, To make
  • Anti- = Against
  • -ful = Filled with
  • Dis- = Opposite of
  • Im- , In- , Un- , Non- = Not
  • -less = Without
  • -ly = Characteristic of
  • Mid- = Middle
  • -ment = Act of, Process
  • Mis- = Bad, Wrong
  • -ness = Condition, State of
  • Pre- = Before
  • -logy, -ology = Science of, Study of
  • -over = Too much, Above
  • -ism = Act, Condition of
  • Sub- = Under, Below
  • -ward = Direction

Helpful Resources for Teaching Prefixes and Suffixes in Upper Elementary

Looking for ready-to-use resources to make teaching and reviewing these and other prefixes and suffixes easier? Check out these resources from Fun in Fith Grade!

Prefix and Suffix Flipbook Activity {Editable}

Prefix and Suffix Game for Literacy Centers: U-Know {Vocabulary Game}

Prefix and Suffix Digital Review Activity Level 1 | Distance Learning

ELA Flipbook Bundle (Text Structure, Figurative Language, and Prefix/Suffix)

Prefix and Suffix (Affix) Puzzles

Prefix & Suffix Digital Puzzles | Prefix & Suffix Activity

Prefix and Suffix Digital Review Activity Level 2 | Distance Learning

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