Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on the importance of Greek and Latin roots. 

In last month’s blog, I tried to highlight the importance of morphology, in particular, Latin and Greek word roots, for developing students’ vocabularies. Knowing just one Latin or Greek root can help a reader unlock the meaning of 10 or more English words. It demonstrates the efficacy of expanding vocabularies through word roots instruction. Equally important, we know that most academic words (the words and concepts students need to know for mastering math, science, and social studies) in English are derived from Latin and Greek roots. If you accept the premise that Latin and Greek roots offer great promise for increasing vocabulary, the next question should be how can vocabulary be taught through a word roots approach?     

Practice Greek and Latin Roots with our freebie Root Word Memory Game.

Expose Students to Selected Roots

Given the multitude of Latin and Greek roots that have influenced English, the first step in developing a curriculum is deciding which roots you want to teach. There are many websites that offer lists of word roots worth teaching, such as VocabularySpellingCity.

I suggest that you try to focus on one or two roots a week. That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that if each root is found say in 20 English words, we’re talking about teaching 20-40 words each week. Many of these words will be academic words.

For younger students (Grades 1-3),  I recommend that you start with common prefixes (e.g. “uni-” [one], “bi-“ [two], “tri-“ [three], “re-“ [again],  “pre-“ [before], “un-“ [not], “sub-“ [under]). Introduce the root (prefix) to students along with its meaning and brainstorm a list of known words that contain the root along with a brief description of each word. Display the root and the brainstormed words on a classroom word chart that is visible to all students. Here’s a possible word wall idea for the root uni-“:

“Uni-” = One

Unicycle = one wheel

Unicorn = one horn

Uniform = one style of clothes

Unique = one of a kind

The United States = one country

For older students (Grades 4+), survey the corpus of roots worth teaching and choose one or two that you feel has significance to what you may be teaching in other subject areas or may be related to a particular event or day. For example, near Thanksgiving, you may wish to focus on the root “grace/grat” which means “thanks”. On Earth Day, you might want to introduce your students to geo and terr (a), both of which means earth or land. As with younger students, brainstorm words that contain the root along with a hint of their meaning. Here’s a word wall idea for terr (a)”:  

“Terr(a)-“ = Earth or Land

Terrain = lay of the land

Terrarium= enclosed land habitat

Terrace= level or flat land

Territory = land belonging to a country

Subterranean = below the earth or land

Throughout the week, try to weave the root and words into your conversation with students and encourage your students to do the same. It can be an amusing challenge to find ways to include the target words into everyday talk. Each subsequent day after the initial introduction of the root, you may want to add one or two more words to your root word wall (union, unit, unify, terra cotta, extraterrestrial, Mediterranean).   

By the end of the week, students should be well versed in the target root and English words that contain the root. You may wish to quiz students on their knowledge of word roots. I prefer to have fun with words and what better way to have fun with words than to play a word game or two. Use the complimentary Root Word Memory Game for root word practice. In the game, students will be able to match words with Greek or Latin roots to the root meanings. 

WORDO can also be easily adapted for root practice — the words that students use on their WORDO cards are, for the most part, words that contain the target root. 

The human brain is a pattern detector. Latin and Greek roots are word patterns that reflect the meaning of many English words. Exposing students to and helping students detect Latin and Greek word patterns embedded in English words can go a long way toward expanding their general and academic vocabularies, and in doing so, improving their reading comprehension.  


Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research QuarterlyThe Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational ResearchRead more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1

For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”

Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.

Teaching Vocabulary through Greek and Latin Roots

4 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary through Greek and Latin Roots

  • December 1, 2018 at 11:22 pm

    When trying to teach roots, my students often come up with words that have a root- but it doesn’t really match the meaning of the root.
    For example how does ex in exist or excite mean out. Or ‘in’ in ‘invention’ mean in. I feel like teaching roots to my students can be as confusing as helpful.

    • May 26, 2019 at 12:31 pm

      This is a great and interesting point. I often feel that word roots are, in elementary school, more confusing than helpful int hat there are many “false word roots” either because of coincidences of spelling or words whose meaning has evolved through the years.

    • January 4, 2020 at 4:21 pm

      From etymonline.com

      exist (v.)
      c. 1600, from French exister (17c.), from Latin existere/exsistere “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear; exist, be” (see existence).

  • November 23, 2019 at 8:55 am

    I looked up exist and this is what I found:
    exist (v.)c. 1600, from French exister (17c.), from Latin existere/exsistere “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear; exist, be” (see existence). “The late appearance of the word is remarkable” [OED]. Related: Existed; existing.

    So it does make sense. I often go with my students to look up the words we can’t figure out, like this one.


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