Roots Rule!

Unit Plan

Edith Hope Fine
3 weeks

California Language Arts Content Standards
Standards Addressed in this Unit
1.0Word Analysis, Fluency, and Systematic Vocabulary Development
Students apply their knowledge of word origins to determine the meaning of new words encountered in reading materials and use those words accurately.
  Vocabulary and Concept Development
1.1 Identify and use the literal and figurative meanings of words and understand word derivations.
Supporting Standards

Teacher Background Reading


This unit focuses on word derivation based on knowledge of Greek and Latin roots. Unit activities and suggested follow-up activities support students in the acquisition of a store of word parts derived from Greek and Latin.

Studies show that the more Greek and Latin roots students know, the stronger their word attack skills. Since over 60% of English words and over 90% of words with three or more syllables come from Greek and Latin, students with a knowledge of roots and affixes do far better on the vocabulary sections of the PSATs and SATs than those who haven't been exposed to language or etymological studies. Being able to identify roots and affixes in English words helps students understand word meanings and accurately use words derived from Greek and Latin.

In beginning a study of Greek and Latin roots, be sure that students understand that in the world of Classical Greece and Rome, people spoke Greek and Latin. Latin spread widely as the Roman Empire extended its reach as far as Roman Britain. Some religions still use Latin today and in Greece, people speak modern Greek, which is based on ancient Greek but has evolved.

In the course of the unit, students can use technology skills for research and a project, as well as practicing speaking skills during presentations.

Getting to the Roots of Words

Getting clues from roots gives insight into word meanings and helps students' skills in finding and applying etymological information. Many dictionaries offer information on the origins of words, usually found at the end of a dictionary entry. Provide comprehensive hard copy or online dictionaries rather than slim paperback or abridged versions that seldom include etymologies.

Students should also know about etymological dictionaries, such as Robert K. Barnhart's The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins of American English Words. Such dictionaries focus on etymology (word origin), rather than definition(s).

Tip: Students should be able to read the etymological information for word entries in hard copy and/or online dictionaries.

Here is an example from Merriam-Webster online

Main Entry: pachy•derm
Etymology: French pachyderme, from Greek pachydermos thick-skinned, from pachys thick + derma skin

To help students understand the word "etymology," show how the word is formed with the Greek etumon, meaning "the true sense of a word" and –ology (from the Greek log = word), meaning "the study of." So etymologists study the origin and development of words. In English, an etymon is an earlier form of a word (in the same language or in an older language).

Show dictionary or etymological entries from other sources so students can compare listings. Not all dictionaries are equal. Author and logophile Charles Harrington Elster recommends The Random House Webster's College Dictionary, Webster's New World Dictionary, third college edition, and The American Heritage Dictionary (he recommends the third edition but a fourth edition is now available).


Smiley Select and adapt these learning activities to best meet the needs of your students, and to fit the time available:

Digging In

In this introductory activity, students first compile a list of familiar English words that relate to a common root. After that, students do research to add to the list.


word strips or cards with Greek and Latin roots
chart paper
watch or timer
Prepare the word strips. Use strips of tagboard/card stock or 5 x 8 inch index cards cut in half lengthwise. Write roots and their meanings on the cards, using green for Greek and red for Latin.

(N.B. On this chart, and throughout this unit, green = Greek; red = Latin.)

To emphasize how many English words have Greek and Latin roots, group students in pairs or groups of four. Give a root word, marker, and paper to each group.

Allow three minutes for students to compile a list on chart paper of as many English words as they can think of that contain their root.

Next, switch word cards between groups. Have students use dictionaries to add more words to the chart paper lists, using dictionaries or online sources to create more comprehensive lists.

Post the lists and discuss this word collection that springs from Greek and Latin, noting the different lengths of the lists, the varying complexities of the words, and, if possible, adding more words to the list.

These lists form the core of an online or hard copy classroom etymology that students can use for reference. They can add new roots and related English words during the study of this unit and throughout the semester.

Student Instructions

Presentations of Illustrated Etymologies

Demonstrate how knowing Greek and Latin roots can help students make discoveries and leaps in understanding.

Start with the familiar word unicorn.

unicorn = uni- (one) + cornu (horn)
Add rhinoceros.
rhinoceros = rhino- (nose) + cero (horn)
Those two words supply students with two roots for horn, one Latin and one Greek. Show students how they can find other words such as cornu in cornucopia (horn of plenty) and triceratops (a dinosaur with three horns on the face-ops).

Have each student create illustrated etymology pages. Each page will include one English word, its roots, a short definition, and an illustration. Use one of two approaches:

Here are examples: Digital Etymology.

Students briefly define their words, including how each example relates to the English word they have chosen. Words may have one or more Greek/Latin roots. See Digital Etymology examples.

Students write five to ten other English words with the same root or roots found in their original word and then define the words.

For rhinoceros, these could include:

FOR EXAMPLE, keratin:
Keratin is a great example of how an English word relates to its root. Keratin is a protein that forms the outer layer of hair, nails, horns, and hoofs. Animal horns are tough. Keratin is tough. (Greek didn't have the letter c so cerat was kerat.)

Class Presentations Students demonstrate etymological knowledge of any one of their five English words, presenting them (and related English words) in ways that will help other students remember the roots and affixes. If students do PowerPoint slides, they can pool them into a PowerPoint slide show for these presentations.

If students prepare notebook pages or posters for their root explorations, display these after the presentations are complete. Put them into book form (arrange alphabetically by English words) or on a bulletin board.

Student Instructions

Additonal Activies to Explore Roots

Encourage students to explore words related to a common root.

Roots in the News


Class presentation of illustrated etymologies

Assessment Rubric




As always with any online source, double-check the material.


Past Review

Students who study Latin score higher on PSATs and SATs. The Greek and Latin resources mentioned above, particularly the student and classroom generated etymologies, will prove invaluable during study for the vocabulary section of the PSAT. With knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, students will be able to make smart guesses even on unfamiliar words. This knowledge will last a lifetime.

Slide Show

If your students used PowerPoint to create word slides showing Greek and Latin roots, combine the slides into a single presentation for your back-to-school night or end-of-term night.

Classroom/School Etymology Book

Using notebook paper and a three-ring binder, create a class or all-school collection of Greek and Latin elements that offers a springboard for word play, quizzes, weekly review cards, and more. Have students add Greek and Latin word parts as they discover them. Have other students double-check spellings and meanings by using hard copy and/or online resources. (Keep an all-school collection in your school's library/media center.)

Cross-subject Learning

Students will become more sophisticated, acquiring Greek and Latin-based terminology from different areas of study. Students with a mathematical bent, those focused on the arts, technology experts, foreign language students, and others can share their insights and discoveries regarding Greek and Latin roots.

Teach Roots

Teaching basic roots to students as young as third grade gives freshmen and sophomores a way to review their knowledge of roots, while turning younger students into decoders who know the keys to unlocking new words. This may count for service learning. (Your students could wear togas and/or laurel wreaths while teaching.)

Extending the Learning

Encourage students to use the Internet, now rich in sources for information about Greek and Latin roots.