Improve Students’ Vocabulary with Greek and Latin Roots

by | Jan 25, 2022 | Educational Resources, Reading, Teaching Strategies, Writing | 0 comments

Did you know explicit Greek and Latin morphological instruction is the most effective way to improve students’ English vocabulary? One root can generate more than one-hundred words. By applying that knowledge, students can determine the meaning of ten times as many words. 

Research supports explicit vocabulary instruction. In 2015, one study found that 80% of reading comprehension was accounted for by vocabulary knowledge. 

In another 2015 study, ESL undergraduates were divided into three groups, and each group received a different type of instruction: the first was taught Greek and Latin morphology, the second was taught general morphology, and the third was taught to use context clues to determine meaning. 

At the end of the study, the first group had the highest scores in all measured areas: morphemic analysis of general English words, morphological analysis of Greek and Latin word parts, and overall vocabulary size. The second group made some improvement in general English words and vocabulary size, while the third group had no improvement in any area.

Why Content-Area Teachers Need to Teach Vocabulary

Up to 76% of content-area words share morphological roots. Students need to know these words in order to understand the subject matter. 

You need to explicitly teach content-area vocabulary for multiple reasons. Without vocabulary comprehension, students can develop misunderstandings and misconceptions. In addition, most students are not exposed to those words outside of school. Furthermore, many content-area words have multiple meanings depending on their context. For example, the word movement means different things in science, history, music, and physical education.

Best Practices for Teaching Greek and Latin Morphology

There are some best practices you can follow that will help your students learn the vocabulary.

Focus on 1 – 2 roots per week.

Select a target root, prefix, or suffix, possibly two (but no more unless they are related), to focus on for the week. Introduce the word part on the first day and have students discuss its meaning. The class can brainstorm words using the word part and look for words in their reading.

You could hang strips of paper where students could create word families. They could add words as they discover them throughout the year. This would help students to continue thinking about and using what they learned.


Discuss & Practice Using the Vocabulary

Create a word list of 5 – 10 words that use the targeted root, prefix, or suffix. After the introduction of the word part, spend a few days breaking the words into parts and discuss how those parts create the words’ definitions. 

Students should be given plenty of opportunities to use the words in context. In order to retain the vocabulary, students should use the words both in their writing and read texts with the words in context. 

Discuss False Etymologies

Sometimes words look like they might be part of a family, but they really aren’t. You should analyze and explain why these words aren’t related. (It’s okay to research the word history with students to determine this – it is important to show students that you are a lifelong learner.)

For example, students may say uncle uses the prefix un-, but it doesn’t. Teachers should analyze words with the prefix and uncle – why is the latter not related?

Integrate Vocabulary Instruction with Content

In 2015, a study showed students improved their understanding of science concepts with explicit vocabulary instruction. Students were better able to determine the meaning of newly introduced terms than students who did not receive Greek and Latin instruction.

You should integrate vocabulary into content areas. Of course, vocabulary in a novel should be taught during language arts, but it should be taught within the context of math, science, and social studies, too. When possible, content teachers could work together with language arts teachers. 

A FREEBIE to Help You Get Started

Want to start using Greek and Latin morphology lessons with your students? Not sure where to start? I created my FREE Greek & Latin Roots just for you! 



Doty, Jane K., et al. Teaching Reading in Social Studies. ASCD, 2010.

Paiman, Norazha & Yap, Ngee & Chan, Mei-Yuit. (2015). Effectiveness of Morphemic Analysis of Graeco-Latin Word Parts as a Vocabulary Learning Strategy among ESL Learners. 3L: The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies. 21. 31-45. 10.17576/3L-2015-2102-03. 

Rasinski, Timothy,  and Nancy Padak. “The Roots of Comprehension.” Ascd.Org, ASCD, 1 Feb. 2017,

Week, Liana Heitin, Education. “Can Latin Help Younger Students Build Vocabulary? | PBS NewsHour.” PBS NewsHour,, 19 Apr. 2016,

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