If you could give your ESL students the key to understanding brand new vocabulary, what would you do to make it happen? Well, you do not have to do anything drastic. Simply try some of these activities with word roots, and your students will learn the skills that are necessary to break down new English words into pieces that make sense.
How to Teach Word Roots in Your ESL Classroom
The key to understanding new vocabulary through the use of word roots is first understanding the meaning of the roots themselves. Many dictionaries include word roots in the definitions they give for words, and you can encourage your students to keep a running list of the word roots that they have learned or been exposed to. Keeping a running list will both help your students remember the meanings of the roots and give them a list they can reference in the future. In so doing, some of your students may even find that English word roots are derivative of their native languages, especially if they are romance language speakers (Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and Portuguese). Help your students understand word roots on a daily basis. When you introduce new vocabulary to your students, point out any word roots that may help them know the meaning of the new word without heading to the dictionary.
Though having your students develop their own word root definition list is useful, it may be a bit on the difficult or slow side since there are so many word roots that the English language includes. An alternative to creating your own lists is to provide your students with a list of word roots and definitions. You can find several web sites that give lists of English word roots and their definitions; you should choose the one that best fits the needs of you and your students and then make it available to them.
Once your students are familiar with the idea of word roots and have some definitions under their belts, it is time to show them how to use those word roots to discover the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary! Give your students some vocabulary words that are not familiar to them which are also composed of word roots they know or can look up. For example, you may want to give them the words acrophobia, xenophobia and bibliophobia after introducing the roots phobia, xeno, acro and bibio. Ask them to use only the word roots to try to figure out the meaning of the new words, and then give them the correct definition. Later, your students will be able to infer that any unfamiliar word that ends with phobia will likely be a fear of whatever the first part of the word means. The more word roots you review and practice with your class, the more tools they will have for understanding new English words. Given contextual clues, they will often be able to make a useful guess as to the meaning of the word when it includes one or more root which they have studied.
Words in the Family
Your students have learned the meanings of several word roots, and they have used those meanings to decipher the meanings of new vocabulary. Now it is time to see what other words use those same roots. Ask your students to list as many other words they can think of that use one particular word root. You may want to take the root bene which means ‘good’. What words can the class think of that include this word root? This may be quite a challenge for your students, especially if their English vocabularies are not extensive. After racking their brains, let them use the dictionary to look up more words that contain the root bene. Have them start by looking up the word root itself. From there, they will likely find other words that begin with that root. In the case of bene, on the same page your students would find benediction, benefaction, benefactor, beneficence, beneficent, beneficial…the list goes on. Your students may also be able to find more words by reading the definitions of the words they found.
Your students should have a good grasp on word roots at this point and how they come together to make words that people use every day. Now you can challenge your students to get creative with what they know and try to invent what might be real words in English! Start by asking your students to write several word roots on index cards or give them a set you have already prepared. Each card should have only one word root written on it. Then, challenge individuals or pairs of students to combine these roots in original ways in hopes of coming up with existing English words. When the pairs have a handful of words they think might be real English words, have them look the words up in the dictionary and see if they were right. If the words that they came up with are very similar to or even the same as those in the dictionary, congratulate your students on their great accomplishments! You can even turn this activity into a game by awarding three points to anyone who is able to combine roots to make a true English word and two points to anyone who makes a combination very similar to an existing English word. Give your class a time limit, and the winners are the team with the highest score at the end of the set time.
For further study and practice of word roots, the internet offers some useful resources.
There are sites that offer interactive practice with word roots, and your students may enjoy the activities they find there. Whether you give this option to your students or not, they are sure to benefit from any class time that you devote to the study of word roots in English. They will have gotten tools that will be useful for them for years to come in their English studies and language use!