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Linking the Language: A Cross-Disciplinary Vocabulary Approach

Reading Way

A strategy for vocabulary instruction that involves introducing new vocabulary in related clusters. This approach can help diverse learners, including English-minority students, make important vocabulary connections.

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In theory, it should be relatively easy for educators to link the language by introducing vocabulary in related clusters of words that cross content domains. Rather than introducing a word in isolation, teachers might surround it with family members that share the same root. This approach should help diverse learners, including English-minority students, make important vocabulary connections and transfer core ideas across content.

Students are exposed to an abundance of terms across the K-12 continuum — words that might be linked in the mental lexicon to promote retention and retrieval (Reichle & Perfetti, 2003). For example, the word thermometer may appear in a second-grade science curriculum, the related words thermal and geothermic several years later, and exothermic reactions show up in middle school. Adolescents may read about hypothermia in literature selections or in health class. The high-school science text may include thermonuclear or thermoelectricity. Meanwhile, at home, families might speak of a thermostat or a thermos.

At which point across the K-12 continuum does the learner recognize the pattern inherent in these meanings and spellings? Some may naturally figure out that all these words share the same root (therm) and pertain to ‘heat.’ Others may never make that connection without help. They are unlikely to independently determine the meaning of thermodynamics through analysis of word structure. Such students are stymied until they learn the fundamental building blocks of the English language.

The end of third grade is the time to introduce students to the Latin roots and Greek combining forms used frequently in social studies, math, and science texts. Learning these important patterns provides strategies for not only decoding and spelling but also for expanding expressive and receptive vocabulary. (Henry, 2003, p. 101-102)

The English language is potentially overwhelming. About 70% of the words derive from Latin, French, or Greek, and about 22% from German (Finkenstaedt & Wolff, 1973). Furthermore, the language is large, with nearly one million meaningful lexemes, including words, idioms — we can’t overlook figurative language — prefixes, roots, and suffixes (Crystal, 1995). Given the scope and complexity of the language, it behooves us to help students process and classify related concepts.

One way we might do this is through meaning-bearing morphemes, such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes. We know that approximately 88,500 distinct root families of words appear in school texts (credible, incredible, credibility, credulous). From that same study, we also know that about 60% of the words encountered in varied textbooks may be deciphered by analyzing the morphemes inside the word and the context in the surrounding sentences (Nagy & Anderson, 1984).

Thus, to promote this process of morphemic analysis, educators might expose the root in clusters of related words. For example, each of these words — primary, primer, prime, primitive, primal —  shares the same root — prim — meaning ‘first or before.’ This is a morphological family of words, and such relationships have been shown to facilitate reading (Carlisle & Katz, 2006).

Seeking connections

With just a little practice, recognizing roots becomes almost easy. For example, the words bat, battle, battalion, combat, combatant, combative, battering ram and debate contain the root — bat — meaning ‘to beat.’ Approaching these related words through their shared root offers a way to decode, encode, and decipher meanings. 

In fact, most states publish academic standards that require students to analyze the morphemes to understand words. However, there is inconsistency between academic standards and pre-service teacher education. Some educators do not understand morphology — but they may enjoy learning along with their students (Moats & Foorman, 2003). Thus, “Even while they teach, men learn.” (Seneca).

Students needn’t become linguists — they need to become curious. A good deal might be accomplished by simply seeking root relationships in words. Each teacher thinks beyond his/her domain to broad common usage, providing for transfer of ideas and revealing root families.

For example, the math teacher may expose the root — equi — meaning ‘same or equal’ in the terms equate, equation, equidistant, and equivalent, and link it to the geography term equator or the civics terms equal rights and equity. Likewise, the history teacher might draw from that same bank of words — including the math terms — when discussing equality or inequity. As applicable, the Spanish cognate igualar could be linked to its English counterpart equal.

Working together, educators help students link the language and even bridge to another language — like Spanish — by drawing attention to the root and revealing families of related words. For example, the root photo (meaning ‘light’) can be found in these words: photon, photograph, photophobia, and telephoto.

Gradually, intermediate and secondary students should begin to understand that most words are structured according to logical patterns of meaning and spelling. Coupled with context clues, a morphological approach may benefit diverse learners, especially English Language Learners (Carlo et al., 2004; Kieffer & Lesaux, 2007). From a classroom perspective, Gloria Ramirez, ELL teacher, has successfully capitalized on morphemes and cognates in middle school instruction.

Personally, I have found that my intermediate-level ELL students can feel successful and are successful when they have learned the meaning of affixes and roots. I find that their spelling improves as well as their vocabulary. Cognates are very important. For instance, sincere in Spanish is sincero, sincerity is sinceridad and sincerely is sinceramente. The roots are the same and just as we add different suffixes to change the grammatical part of speech in English, so we do also in Spanish. The concept transfers easily.


Vocabulary is improved by learning the most common prefixes (Graves, 2004). These affixes contribute a great deal to meaning, as seen in the difference been the words benediction (blessing) and malediction (curse). Again, consider the power of the prefix in the related academic words interior, exterior, posterior, anterior, and ulterior. Science teachers might reinforce these prefixes as students examine and label parts of the brain, the atom, etc. Literature teachers might bridge to ulterior motive, while history teachers link to Department of the Interior, interior exploration, etc. Some of the more common prefixes are shown in Table 1.

The instructional model could be even more systematic; it could involve a planned focus of instruction. For example, English teachers might introduce common prefixes (such as trans- in transfer) and content teachers reinforce them. History teachers may reveal the morphemic relationship between transportation, Transcontinental Railroad, Transatlantic Exploration, and Transcendental Meditation, helping students deduce that all terms contain the prefix trans-, meaning ‘across’ or ‘through.’ Health teachers could discuss transfections, trans fatty acids, and blood transfusions, while in science, students build lexical bridges to transmitters and transponders. All teachers would link the targeted vocabulary to related words beyond their domain. They needn’t know which words other teachers are teaching; they simply need to make connections to morphologically related words. With this kind of ‘transdisciplinary vocabulary outreach’, the language may shrink as each student’s vocabulary grows.

Numeric Prefixes

As they naturally teach their subject matter, math and science teachers are strategically positioned to point out the meanings of numeric prefixes, such as mono, bi, tri as shown in Table 2. They might begin with easier words (tricycle, triangle, monoxide) and advance to more complex vocabulary (triaxial, trilobite, trisoctahedron, polycarbonate,). Likewise, mythology teachers could expose the three prongs of Neptune’s trident while music teachers explain the difference between monotone, duet, trio, and quartet. History teachers could link to the Roman triumvirate. Taking another root, they might explain that the words century, centurion, centipede, and percent all share the root centum meaning ‘hundred’. With instruction in morphology, students might note the numeric prefix in words like bicentennial, decades, and hemisphere. Time invested in learning numeric prefixes should be worthwhile.


A few suffixes appear frequently in social studies. For instance, the suffix -ism meaning ‘belief or practice’ occurs in well-known words like alcoholism or vandalism and in lesser-known terms like feudalism, fanaticism, and capitalism. History students need to become comfortable with the derivational suffixes -ist and -istic, as in separatist, abolitionist, communistic, socialistic. Crossing domains, art teachers reinforce this suffix with the terms photorealistic, pointillism, and impressionism. There are at least a dozen derivational suffixes that appear frequently in words (see Ebbers, 2004; Henry, 2003; Moats, 2000).

Linking Morpheme Clues and Context Clues

Proficient readers look at context clues as well as morpheme clues to determine word meaning when reading independently. However, older students may not naturally know how to do this — some may not even realize that such clues exist, or they may not utilize context and morphemic clues together (Wysocki & Jenkins, 1987). In every domain, teachers might model this strategy. They could guide the process, encouraging learners to access the context outside the word and the morphemes inside the word. This strategy has been proven somewhat effective in reading subject-matter texts (Baumann et al., 2002). See also Ebbers and Denton (2008).

Table 1: Common Prefixes

Prefix Meaning Examples
un- not, opposite unkind, uncertain, unchanging
re- back, again replay, regress, reform
in- (im-, il-, ir-) not inedible, immortal, illegitimate, irreversible
dis- not, opposite disagree, disharmony, disintegration
en- (em-) to make, cause, put enlighten, encompass, embark, empower
non- not nonsense, nonfiction, nonpartisan
in- (im-) inside, within insight, introvert, insert, implant, import
over above, superior overlord, oversight, overarching
mis- wrong, bad mistrust, misnomer, misconstrue
sub- under, less subtract, submarine, substation, subset
pre- before preheat, predict, preposition
inter- between interstate, international
fore- before forewarn, forerunner, before
de- remove, from derail, dethrone, deduct
trans- across, through transcontinental, transfer
ex-, exo-, e- out exhale, exit, exoskeleton, evaporation
com (cor, col, con) with, together committee, correspond, colleague, congress

Table 2: Numeric Prefixes

Meaning Greek Latin Examples
1 mono uni monotone, monoxide, unicorn, unicycle
2 di bi, du, duo dioxide, dilemma, binoculars, bipartisan, duet
3 tri tri triangle, tricycle, triplicate, triumvirate
4 tetra quad (quart) tetrahedron, quadruplets, quartet, quarter
5 penta quint pentagon, iambic pentameter, quintuplets, quintet
6 hexa sext hexagon, sextuplets
8 octo octo octopus, October, octagon, octave
10 deca deci decade, decathlon, decimal, December, decimate
100 hector cent century, centipede, centurion, cents, percentage
1000 kilo milli kilometer, kilobyte, millennium, milliliter
part, half hemi semi hemisphere, semicolon, semiconductor
many poly multi polygon, monopoly, multiply, multilingual

Word-savvy students

Word-conscious students are somewhat primed to learn vocabulary. They are motivated, interested in language, and inquisitive about words. English or reading teachers might ignite such an attitude by sharing the humorous yet educational chapter book Frindle (Clements, 1996). This fast-paced plot is suitable for grades 4-8 and ought to motivate and engage the class. Motivation and engagement may well optimize instruction, resulting in higher achievement (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

In fact, according to Tseng and Schmitt (2008) motivation permeates all phases of the learning process, including the mastery phase, and success promotes not only the skill to learn new words but also the will to do so. This may depend somewhat on the ability to self-regulate, or to purposefully select the best vocabulary approach for the unknown word. Since a morphemic approach may only work for about half the words encountered in text, teachers could model self-regulation by thinking aloud as they decide which vocabulary tactic is best for a particular unknown word.

Thus, vocabulary lessons that engage and motivate the learner are likely to prove effective. By modeling an attitude of curiosity about language, educators could generate linguistic insight. To further promote such a spirit, teachers strive for a learning atmosphere that is both lighthearted and directed. Students discuss word relationships, invent words, sort words, compare and contrast meanings, and simply enjoy the sounds of speech. Because the activated mind seeks word associations, lessons do not focus on isolated words, or dictionary lists, but on relationships. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) encourage discovery in forming associations.

Planning for success

Working collaboratively, all teachers help students discover morphological links. The more systematic the plan, the more likely it will succeed. Content teachers could focus on the roots that apply to their domain. For example, science roots include bio, therm, phono, photo, geo, hydro, etc. This kind of linguistic instruction is feasible, takes little time, and eventually becomes habitual. One middle school in Florida has been using this approach to vocabulary for several years. The assistant principal, M. Vertrees, explained the benefits:

One of the most important benefits of this type of instruction is that it gave students a deeper understanding of the word and it helped them remember it. For example, when I taught Mediterranean Sea, I taught it as medi = ‘middle’ and terra = ‘earth’ — The sea in the middle of the earth. Then they knew how the people felt about their world back then. That was the known world; it was all they knew. (interview, June 14, 2006)

Some educators teach a word a day. Perhaps the mental lexicon would be even more tightly woven if grade-level teams focuses on an academic word family each week. Academic words might be selected from the first five sublists of the New Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000). For example, the academic word benefit could include beneficial, benefactor, benevolent, benign, and benediction. The meaning of the prefix bene- (‘good’) would be taught in English class but students would encounter related words across the curriculum, in science, math, art, etc. Every teacher would find a way to relate at least one of the words to a lesson that week. Schools might display the family-of-the-week in the halls, the library, and on classroom walls. This may yield positive school-wide community effects as well as vocabulary growth and transfer of knowledge.

Cross-domain linkage is not likely to occur by happenstance. At first, this type of approach will require leadership, an interdepartmental focus team, collaboration, planning, and professional development — at least a professional learning community. Instructional leaders will need to promote and prioritize the vision. They will serve as metaphorical torchbearers, keeping the goal prominent amidst the myriad distractions that occur over the school year.

Affirmation and validation is key. Teachers need to see that this approach is working and students need to feel more capable and confident around language. However, monitoring vocabulary growth is a thorny issue, as vocabulary grows slowly. One early indicator may be a heightened level of interest in words. Progress is evident when students spontaneously identify morphemes in connected texts: “Look! There’s bio again!” Furthermore, as students learn to recognize the shared root in large families of words, spelling and reading may improve. This is another indicator of progress. Gradually, eventually, growth in reading and perhaps in disciplinary knowledge should be reflected on summative state achievement tests.

Resources are necessary. Teachers may need a dictionary that includes word origins. In schools populated with Spanish-speaking language learners, cross-language dictionaries may be needed to find cognates (insect-insecto). Much of this information is available online. For parsing out essential roots and prefixes across the departments by grade level, see Henry (2003). Likewise, for lists of common morphemes and a variety of teaching suggestions and exercises, see Moats (2000).

Patience and Practice

Vocabulary growth may not be immediately appreciated, just as a few drops in a bucket are easily overlooked. If progress is slow, resist the temptation to feel discouraged. Unlike learning the letters and sounds of the alphabet, vocabulary is an ongoing growth construct, never fully mastered. Adolescents may first need to overcome their sense of frustration and failure, which may manifest itself as apathy or anger. An accepting, humorous, engaging atmosphere of playful discovery is optimal. Validating partial knowledge (the student understands the word when hearing it) and demonstrating that meanings are somewhat flexible — as used in context — may offset years of intimidation. Also, ongoing review will secure a stronger sense of success. Distributed practice is more effective than massed cramming because retention of information is higher (Willingham, 2002). Eventually, with multiple exposures over time and through varied vocabulary strategies, a new level of linguistic insight, possibly even a new sense of self, should emerge.


A morphology approach is one important strategy in the vocabulary teacher’s toolbox; it does not take long and it can be — and should be — integrated easily with context clues. But it is not the only approach and it will not work for every word. Some words do not make sense through the root or do not belong to a large morphological family.

Furthermore, morphology research, while promising, is not yet conclusive, especially with respect to learning disabilities (Reed, 2008). Moreover, the concept of a school-wide interdepartmental approach is theoretical, albeit based in principles of effective instruction. We do know that the vocabulary plan should include a variety of strategies-ways to promote vocabulary through incidental wide reading and also through intentional and explicit instruction.

Thus, a comprehensive, four-part vocabulary program has been hypothesized by Graves (2006) and confirmed in the classroom by Baumann, Ware, and Edwards (2007). The plan includes more than just morphology.

Finally, it’s possible to go too far with morphology, to the point of diminishing returns. To avoid this, teach only the most common roots and affixes. A root approach should not overwhelm inquiry-based science or history lessons; rather, it should support such instruction. Norborn Felton, Emeritus Professor of Geology at San Jose State, explains the value of morphology even as he advises restraint.

Kids don’t need to learn all of the prefixes and roots. They need to be exposed to enough of them so they can see how useful they are. That’s the important thing. And they can make up new scientific words. It should be engaging.