One Piece at a Time: Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes

word roots, word stems, prefixes, suffixes, literacy
Roots, stems, and literacy are the puzzle pieces to reading comprehension.

How Do Word Roots and Stems Impact Students’ Literacy?

Enhancing Literacy with School-wide Instruction

In my second year of teaching, my school implemented a much-needed school wide literacy plan. Over 60 percent of our students were significantly behind in reading, and part of the school’s core mission was to advance students dramatically enough to allow them to take courses at a local college in their junior and senior year of high school.  But 6th graders who were reading on a 2nd or 3rd grade level had a long way to go.  And like many literacy plans, the intent was admirable but the execution was less than effective.

A core part of the plan was for all teachers–even math and science teachers like me–to include the “word of the day” in our instruction.  The teachers leading the program were very dedicated humanities teachers, and I wish I could say I resisted the urge to be snarky when the first week’s list consisted of the following words:  polyglot, propaganda, symbolism, insurrection, and doctrine.

I couldn’t, though: I replied with a note asking them to include the formula for photosynthesis in their lessons.

Prefixes, Suffixes, and Greek & Latin Roots

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and we revisited the intention behind the plan and decided it made a lot more sense to support school-wide instruction of a new common prefix, suffix, or Greek  or Latin root word each week.  In addition to preventing weekly turf wars over the word list, teaching prefixes and suffixes led to much better results for students.

Learning a relatively few number of prefixes, suffixes, and roots gives students an advantage when trying to decipher a vast amount of words.  In the book Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing, Patricia Cunningham explains:

“Four prefixes— un, re, in (and its variants im, ir, and il, all meaning “not”), and dis— account for 58 percent of all prefixed words. Add sixteen more prefixes— en/em, non, in/im (meaning “in”), over, mis, sub, pre, inter, fore, de, trans, super, semi, anti, mid, and under —to account for 97 percent of all prefixed words. Students who know how to read, spell, and attach meaning to these 20 prefixes can apply that knowledge to decode, spell, and understand the meanings of many multi-­syllabic words.”

Adding Roots & Stems to Literacy Instruction

Teaching students prefixes, suffixes, and word roots create stronger reading comprehension and writing skills. It’s estimated that 90% of words have roots in Latin, and many of the remaining words have roots in Greek. Introducing roots and stems in any subject can help students in all areas. Make sure not to overwhelm yourself or your students. Pick two or three a week, and start with the basics, because many roots, prefixes, and suffixes add on one another.

At, we automatically include the option to focus on one of the affixes found in whatever reading you’re choosing to teach. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for teachers to support morphology instruction while still focusing on text related to specific content (Click here to give it a try!)

For More Great Resources on Prefixes, Suffixes, and Word Roots, check out:

The Supplement to Massachusetts’ English Language Arts Framework
Anne Murphy Paul ‘s: Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts and Word Roots)


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