In a research paper entitled Romancing Our Readers, Dr. Abigail Konopasky points out that: up until 4th grade a student’s central literacy job is to memorize; she must read a relatively large number of words by ‘sight’ and then be able to reproduce the spelling of those words in her writing. The paper goes on to explain that in upper elementary school the focus shifts. Instead of learning to read, the student’s job becomes reading to learn. While memorizing is still important, the larger goal is analyzing, or as explained in a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation: using their skills to gain more information in subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically about what they are learning, and to act upon and share that knowledge in the world around them.
To support our young readers with these new essential tasks, it’s helpful to understand what is happening at the word level. Dr. Konopasky points out that in Grade 4, many of the new words being introduced are actually in a new language. Let me explain what I mean by this: the vast majority of monosyllabic (one-syllable) English words and quite a few disyllabic (two-syllable) English words are from the Germanic language family (via the Anglo-Saxons). These are words that describe our everyday, concrete activities, words that show up in elementary school readers. Meanwhile, the majority of multisyllabic English words are from the Romance language family (mainly via French, Italian, Spanish and Latin).
She continues: a student reading Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, must navigate perspiration, commotion, endure, approximate, salutations, gullible, exertion, and other highly descriptive root words. A student reading Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, commonly taught in grade 5, must make sense of exasperated, imperious, belligerent, impassive, residential, intricate, designate, and many others. The root words have arrived!
So our K-3 students live mostly in the Anglo-Saxon world of everyday words. The spellings may be irregular, but the meanings are generally simple. Romance words, by contrast, are harder to comprehend, but they also offer a compelling opportunity. Here’s Dr. Konopasky again: Fortunately, the characteristic that makes Romance vocabulary so different from Germanic vocabulary also makes it teachable: its root structure. All of these Romance words can be broken down into parts; they can be analyzed.
A New Way of Seeing Words
Teaching our students to analyze words pays numerous dividends. First, it requires them to slow down. Tinkering with roots is a powerful antidote to the bad habits born of the perpetually on-screen lifestyle. The new habit is all about investigating, giving text some time.
Secondly, the same roots can show up in lots words, so a reader can borrow meaning from one to help unpack another. For example, a student can use invisible “not able to be seen” to shine light on provisions, “the results of looking ahead”. If you are pro-vising “forward looking,” you will have the stuff you need for your journey. On the other hand, if you don’t look ahead, you will need to improvise. The extra prefix im “not” steers the word to a new place. Notice that we can teach word analysis with relatively simple words. It’s all about helping the students get comfortable with the process. It’s no big deal. It’s what we do. And pretty soon, whole vistas of words can come to life. This is how vocabulary is acquired exponentially!
And it’s not only possible to associate words within a family; we can also make connections with other families that share common meanings.
More Seeing Words:
So many words about seeing, and so much to see! The benefits keep piling up. Looking at root structure also supports spelling. Why does collaborate have 2 l’s? Because of a doubling rule that sometimes works? No, because the prefix col “together” ends with an l, and the base root labor “work” starts with one. That’s why!
But most of all, working with roots builds word curiosity and helps students take on a sense of authority with English. It’s all about “learning how to fish”, having command of the academic process, reading to learn. Let’s help our young readers develop the eyesight to look inside language!