According to the US Department of Education, the number one strategy for improving reading comprehension is explicit vocabulary instruction. General guidelines are provided, but teachers must still decide what words to teach and how to deliver them. Using lists, workbooks, and other one-word-at-a-time options, students will generally cover 150-300 words in a school year. Considering high-stakes assessments draw on many thousands of words, how can this approach improve outcomes?
There is a better way: rather than having your students memorize one word at a time, teach word families! The English language has about 2000 critical Latin and Greek root families that drive the vast majority of multisyllabic words. This may sound like a lot of families, but it’s a manageable number compared to the tens of thousands of words students need to build a robust vocabulary. Roots bring this task within reach, especially if the families are learned sequentially over several years. (Grades 4-10 are ideal). Once a student has taken on the habit of looking for roots in unfamiliar words, reading comprehension is certain to improve.
Consider these passages:
…they would sit staring at the copper with such eager eyes as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed, employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. From Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. From Dracula, by Bram Stoker
The reader can glean some sense of assiduously from the context, but analyzing the roots can really bring it to light. Here are the steps:
- Break it down! as-sid-uous-ly.
- Identify the base root: sid
- Think of a word with sid that you know. Here’s one: residence, “place where one sits back, settles.”
- Apply the base root meaning to the context. In both cases, the protagonists are very focused on a task. They have “settled into” the task and are applying themselves to it.
You might ask: why not just look the word up? Yes, but this takes time, and on a test is not permitted. Also, decoding the word as part of a family will make retention more stable. The student will now be on the lookout for other “sit, settle” words, and there are many!
Let’s consider a couple more passages:
The seniors had been trotted off to the improvised obstacle course in the woods, or to have their blood pressure taken again, or to undergo an insidious exercise in The Cage which consisted in stepping up on a box and down again in rapid rhythm for five minutes. From A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Although teachers do not hold bombs or knives, they are still dangerous enemies. They fill us with insidious revisionist ideas. They teach us that scholars are superior to workers. They promote personal ambition by encouraging competition for the highest grades. From Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-li Jiang
Now what “sitting and settling” is going on with insidious? The context definitely signals a negative vibe. Our students, the roots detectives, must investigate! (Side note: the root vestig comes from the Latin vestigium “footprint, track”, so to investigate is etymologically “to follow footprints.”) The idea of settling on something does not mean you are squashing it all at once; it has more of an “exerting pressure over time” connotation. The pressure may be subtle at first, but it sits there, working its treachery, and eventually doing harm. It is insidious.
If our students learn to follow root paths from easy words like residence, residue or subside to challenging words like assiduous and insidious, they will gain more than just large vocabularies. This process also builds word curiosity and critical thinking. Working with roots draws the reader into the word, and by extension, into the text. Let’s teach our students to look inside language!
To learn your roots, visit www.wordvoyage.com