[Teaching Ideas] Vocabulary Development–Greek Roots

A coworker posed a question to me on Friday and I stewed on it all weekend.

How would I teach Greek and Latin roots to middle grade students?

This sent my mind to spinning. I’ve never been a strong proponent of weekly spelling or vocabulary lists and quizzes. I found that my strong students memorized them for a period of time, my middle students memorized them for less time, and my struggling students struggled to memorize or use them and this was compounded each week–they knew it was coming, they knew it was hard and they began to know they would fail.

As I began to work with the San Diego Area Writing Project a couple of years ago I was introduced to the work of Katie wood Ray, Jeff Anderson, Kelly Gallagher and others. I was also lucky enough to learn from my Summer Institute fellows one Summer. Through multiple participant demos I was able to crystallize my thinking about this issue. What follows is a brainstorm of ideas combining what I have learned from practice, from the authors listed above, and from other SDAWP Fellows.

I posted awhile back about a method of vocabulary development I adopted after working with Abby–an SDAWP fellow. Click here for more information and examples of that process.

Now… THIS is how I’d approach the teaching of Greek or Latin Roots:

I would start by initiating a conversation using nonsense words. There are low-stress, no-right-answer kind of words and students can wrestle with them with less risk. Two of these texts do provide “answers” that definite the nonsense words, but I use these texts for the process of inquiry as opposed to the act of getting the right answer. Here are three that work well listed in order of least challenging to most challenging.

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll (this is a fun picture book version)

Allow the students to explore the words, possible meanings, maybe parts of speech, patterns they find, and most importantly to explain their thinking. Many of our students are lacking experience in this kind of problem solving and their answers may be seem wild or unfounded. This is time for them to practice reasoning, for teachers to practice letting students figure it out, and to allow space for the wrong answers. Even in the cases were the author or literary critics have provided a “correct” answer, it is okay to be wrong in a lesson like this.

After this exercises use a similar model to introduce Greek or Latin roots.  Provide 10 or so roots in a list or embedded in an article or story (even better) and let the students wrestle with it. I suggest starting with just enough roots to provide the opportunity to discover patterns or connections to prior knowledge, but not so many that it becomes a “vocabulary list” in the traditional sense.

Guide them to come up with patterns and to provide evidence for their decisions. It is okay for the initial guess to be wrong, and even for the evidence to be faulty at this point. They will get to the correct answer either from their peers or, in the end, from the teacher. For now, let them stretch their brains.

If appropriate, you may use this video clip as a humorous way to transition from the inquiry above to the final list of roots and meanings. It is a short video clip from My Big Fat Greek Wedding showing how Greek roots work.

 **Note–the first word is a correct Greek root, but the second example is not.  This may lead to a discussion about how not all words have Greek roots.  This is also an excellent opportunity to have students look into both examples (arachnophobia and kimono) and come up with their own answers as to their veracity and why or why not.

If your students are doing well with this kind of inquiry or thinking you might consider NOT handing them the correct answers with the first list. Maybe challenge them with the task of coming to a group consensus on each word and  maybe after that they can look it up on their own (a great opportunity to use your technology). This might be a time that you never do have to lecture or hand out answers. You can spot check or do an exit ticket to make sure they have them by the end, but this is something they can do!

After all of this, you will still have more groups of words to present. I suggest a few options. If the model above worked well, try it again with a new list! If they struggled or it came easy to them, here are a couple more options you could use with future groups of words:

–The No List option–have students bring you new words. You can set the stage by providing opportunity or appropriate texts and objects, but have the students “discover” them and add them to the group list.  Each new discovery is a class find.  Perhaps assign a visual and a kinesthetic motion to each as you go and post them on the list. Practicing the list can become a bell-0ringer activity, or entrance or exit slip material. This is similar to the protocol I used here.

–The Short List Option–provide a list of a 5 or so words with the same root or similar roots on a Monday and thread them in your texts throughout the week.  Students can add to their list all week and present a completed list to you on Friday for a privilege or a grade. Bonus points if they remember them without their notes!

–The Longer List Option–Provide 10 or so words that you know can be grouped into some sort of pattern or set. Use an inquiry process similar to the one above to identify the meanings.Refer back to the list each day and sneak it into texts, sentences, classroom directions.  Inundate your room with them. You may give a “for fun” quiz at the end.  Each correct answer gets a bonus point.

–The Longest List Option–hand out a huge list of Greek Roots and spread the investigation out over a series of weeks. Students will see the list, maybe have it placed prominently on their binder, iPad, Chrome Book or other classroom device and if they see a word in a text or hear it, they can highlight it and fill the info out.  This turns the learning into a long-term scavenger hunt.  As above, I suggest taking a minute each time one is discovered (and you may have to plant them throughout your lessons), assigning a visual and a kinesthetic memory tool to each and adding them to a larger list.

So there you have it.  My brain dump on how I would teach Greek or Latin Roots. Whew!

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