Agnostic Gnome Goes Incognito

In the book, Greek and Latin Roots- Keys to Building Vocabulary, Dr. Timothy Rasinski, and his co-authors state an amazing fact: 90 percent of English words with more than one syllable are Latin based. Most of the remaining 10 percent are Greek based. A single Latin root generates 5-20 English words. Another excerpt: Latin and Greek prefixes, bases, and suffixes are fairly consistent in their meanings and spelling patterns. Consequently, students can figure out the pronunciation and meaning of many new words by looking at their roots. They will understand the logic in the spelling pattern. 

Knowing the logic in spelling patterns is the key to building vocabulary exponentially. For example, a student who knows the words ignore and recognize has a good start with diagnose, ignorant, cognition, prognosis, cognizant, gnostic, ignoramus, incognito, agnostic, and gnomeThe shared letter pattern meaning “know, think, learn; wise, well-known” is altered in interesting ways by the prefixes, and the suffixes join in to establish the parts of speech. It’s critical that our students develop the eyesight to spot these details. 

And it gets better. Spotting letter patterns means slowing down. Skimming is out. And, as explained by Dr. Abigail Konopasky, investigating roots promotes critical thinking. The key is starting early–around the 4th grade. This is when root words start showing up in large numbers. Lacking direct instruction in roots, many students will become habitual word skippers. This unfortunate habit can follow them through the upper grades, undermining reading comprehension and academic success. The good news is that the roots will always be there, ready to help. Let’s teach our students to become word tinkerers and masters of their own language!

Learn more about roots instruction at!


Words Are Not Islands

Words are interconnected in fascinating ways, and unraveling these connections is a great way to build vocabulary. Rather than studying words one at a time, it’s much more efficient and interesting to learn them by family. The roots are the key!

For example, the Latin word for island is insula, and it gives us: isle, insular, insulin, insulate, insulator, insulation, isolate, isolationand peninsulaamong others. Let’s take a look at some of these.

To be insular is to be “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience.” Here’s how Jack London used it in The Call of the Wild:

he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreatic islets. An islet is a small island, or anatomically, a portion of tissue structurally distinct from surrounding tissues. Insulate and isolate also relate to island nicely, but what about peninsula? To unwrap this one, we need to analyze the root pen: “almost, scarcely; lack, want.” Yes, a peninsula is “almost an island”, but not quite.

While we’re here, let’s check out some other words with the root pen: penultimate, penumbra, and penury.

Similar to peninsula, penultimate means “almost the end, next-to-last.” A penumbra is an area that is “almost fully shaded, or is almost fully in the shadow of an opaque object.” Again, it’s the idea of “not quite.” In astronomy, we speak of the shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area experiencing a partial eclipse, as in: During the eclipse, the moon slipped into the earth’s penumbra.

And speaking of darkness, penury is a real downer: Extreme poverty; destitution, scarcity, insufficiency. Here’s how Mary Shelley uses it in Frankenstein:

On the whole island there were but three miserable huts, and one of these was vacant when I arrived. This I hired. It contained but two rooms, and these exhibited all the squalidness of the most miserable penury.

Word roots are the keys that unlock meanings. What’s more, they help students build word curiosity, make connections, and think critically! 

Teach Vocabulary and Grammar on Google Sheets!

Each word in a sentence has a meaning, a part of speech, and a job. Some words have multiple jobs. When working with students, it can be very helpful to analyze all of this information at once, to take on the whole “ecosystem” of a sentence. Here’s a simple way to do it in the classroom:

Step 1:
Select a sentence to analyze–preferably one written by a student. For example: Gladys, an incorrigible chatterbox, talks incessantly about her friends.

Step 2:
Open a blank Google Sheet on your projector, give it a title, and enter the sentence starting with cell B1.

Step 3:
Discuss the meaning of each word with the students. In row 2, add synonyms or root cousins for the challenging words. For example, incorrigible has the root cousin correct. To be incorrigible is to be “uncorrectable.” The word incessant is related to cease, so incessantly is “the manner of not ceasing.” If you are working on a sentence from Word Voyage, your students will already know these root-level connections. Otherwise, and are handy resources. Your sheet should now look like this:


Step 4:
In row 3, add the Parts of Speech.


Step 5:
In row 4, add the job performed by each Part of Speech. If the students are confused about any job, show the Word Voyage grammar video. (From your dashboard, click any group and go to Units>Modify, then click the video title). For example: Transitive and Intransitive Verbs. Other suggested resources: and Expand the cells as needed and use Format>Text Wrapping to make everything easy to read.


Step 6:
In row 5, label the phrases. Use Format>Merge Cells. Darken the unused cells for visual clarity.


Step 7:
In row 6, describe the job performed by each phrase. Again, use Word Voyage videos as needed. For example: Appositives Merge cells, wrap text, and darken unused cells.


Step 8:
Add colors! This makes the whole chart much more readable.


Step 9:
Change the sentence. For example: The loquacious Gladys has no regard for reticence, so she just keeps talking.

Step 10:
Go through the steps again.

Other Ideas:

  • Have a student lead the analysis of each sentence.
  • Go around the room so that each question is answered by a different student.
  • Assign extra practice with any words or skills that present difficulty.
  • Have the students complete their own sentence charts as homework and then present them to the class.
  • Share all the completed charts on the class Google Drive.