A Little Latin (and Greek), and a Whole Lot of English Building Vocabulary with Word Roots

By Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Evangeline Newton, Rick M. Newton

What do the following words and phrases have in common?

  • Tractor
  • A protracted argument
  • Abstract art
  • Attraction
  • Vanilla extract
  • Retractable ink pen
  • Traction
  • Intractable
  • Easily distractible
  • Contractions

Of course, it's easy to notice that all these words and phrases have the word pattern (word root) "tract" in them.    Now let's take it a step further.  What if you knew that the word root "tract" is derived from Latin and means "pull, drag, or draw." Would you be able to define each of the words and phrases above using the words pull, drag, or draw? Absolutely!

  • Tractor:  A farm machine used for pulling farm implements.
  • A protracted argument:  An argument that drags on and on.
  • Abstract art:  Art that is pulled from reality.
  • Attraction:  An amusement that attempts to pull customers in.
  • Vanilla extract. Pulled from the essence of the vanilla bean.
  • Retractable ink pen. A pen for which the tip can be drawn back. 
  • Traction: The drag or pull created by a car's tires that keep it on the road on an icy day.  Also, in medicine the deliberate and prolonged pulling of a bone or muscle, as by weights, to correct dislocation or relieve pressure,
  • Intractable: Unable to be pulled or dragged away.
  • Easily distractible: To be drawn away without difficulty.
  • Contractions. Two words that are pulled together; or muscles that are drawn together as in giving birth.

Knowledge of just that one-word root provides you with a tool for unlocking the meaning (or a part of the meaning) to many words in English - and in the case of "tract", it is well over 100 English words. Equally noteworthy, this includes words students use every single day at home and at school (think subtract, trace, protractor).

One of the amazing features of the English language is that many of its words come from two important languages - Latin and Greek.  In fact, about 90% of English words with more than one syllable are derived from Latin; most of the remaining 10% are Greek-based (Brunner, 2004). Additionally, these polysyllabic (poly = many) academic words are found in science, math, and social studies. Equally amazing is the fact that one-word root can be found in 10, 50, and in some cases over 100 English words.     

With this in mind, it seems natural (nat, natur = born, produce) to make the study of Latin and Greek word roots a part of any vocabulary instruction from grades 1 and up.    Traditionally vocabulary has been taught in the following equation (equ[i] = equal):  teach one word, learn one word.     With a Latin-Greek word roots approach the equation changes to teach one word root but learn multiple (and often challenging) words.

Of course, this begs the question, "How might I teach word roots?"    

The first step is to identify which word roots to teach. Below is a sampling of common word roots.


Common Bases

aero(o)            air, wind         

audi, audit      hear, listen                             

bibli(o)            book                           

bio                   live, life                                  

chron(o)         time                           

dem                 the people                  

graph, gram       write, draw                            

hydr(o)            water                         

labor                work

mand               order  

max                 greatest

phon                voice, call sound

photo              light

pod                  foot

pol, polis         city     

port                 carry

scop                 look, watch

stru, struct     build

terr, ter          land, ground, earth

Common Prefixes

ante                 before

anti, ant          against, opposite

auto                 self

bi*                    two

co, con             with, together

ex                    out

mega, megalo big

micro               small

multi                many (Latin)

poly                 many (Greek)

pre                   before

re                     back, again

super, sur       on top of, over, above

tele                  far, from afar

tri*                   three

un                    not

uni*                  one

Note*:  uni, bi, and tri can also be taught as numerical bases


The next step in instruction (stru, struct = build) would simply be to choose one or two roots per week and make the roots and the words that belong to the root visible for students.  We call it "meeting the root."    Here's an example of two "Meet the Root" word charts that a teacher could put up for display early in the week. 


Word Root:   Bi = Two/2














Word Root:   Terr/Ter = Earth










Lumbricus Terrestis


Introduce students to the root and its meaning, then discuss how each of the words have embedded in them the root's meaning.    Students may already know many of the words, but others may need some scaffolding from you (e.g. bipartisan, bicameral, interment).    Then, throughout the week, make reference to the words on the chart and even add more words to show the generative (gen = birth) nature of the word root.   

Challenge students to use the words in their own written and oral language.

Other days of the week can be devoted to having students break words belonging to a word root family into parts in order to extract (trac, tract = pull, draw, drag) meaning – we call this 'Divide and Conquer;" read and respond to contextual passages that contain multiple (multi = many) examples of the words from the word root family; and even playing games that involve students in  having fun with the word root and its family of words.    

Ten to 15 minutes per day can have a profound impact on students' vocabularies and their approaches for learning new words.

Reading specialist Hillary Loftus, says that a word roots approach gives students a degree of confidence (co, con = with, together; fid = trust) in tackling challenging words:

"If a student can recognize the meaning of just one part of a difficult word, this provides him a toehold on the new vocabulary. Students don’t give up as easily because they already know something about the word."

And isn't that what we want to develop in students? – Not only help them enlarge their own vocabularies but develop in them competencies and dispositions for taking on new or unknown words on their own. 

However, it is not only students' vocabularies that will benefit from a word roots approach, but also their reading, writing (have you ever seen a writing rubric that does not include "word choice?"), and even their  performance in the academic disciplines.   Indeed, if the language content of science, math, and social studies is made up of word roots derived from Latin and Greek, a word roots approach to vocabulary is certain to improve students' knowledge of words in these areas.

Alan Becker, a former K-5 English Language Arts supervisor (super = over; vis = see) brought a word roots approach into his schools after seeing the dramatic impact it had on reading comprehension in his own classroom:

"At the end of each year, the district that I was working in saw 2-5% gains in student performance in reading, always inching closer to my goal of full proficiency in reading and reading in the content areas. By using Greek and Latin roots to teach vocabulary the district met and exceeded predicted growth models in reading."

An approach to word study that focuses on Latin and Greek word roots across the grade levels offers a new, efficient, and engaging approach for increasing students' vocabularies and improving their reading across content areas.   

Using a word roots approach to vocabulary may lead teachers and students to express (ex = out; press = squeeze) what Julius Caesar once declared after achieving victory - "Veni, Vidi, Vici" Vocabulary!


Brunner, B.L. (2004). Word Empire: A Utilitarian Approach to Word Power (2nd ed.). Star Nemeron Educational Innovations.

Rasinski, Padak, Newton and Newton are authors of numerous (num = number) resources on a word root approach to vocabulary instruction:   

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2020). Building Vocabulary with Greek and Latin Roots: A Professional Guide to Word Knowledge and Vocabulary Development (2nd ed.). Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.  (Professional Development Book)

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2019). Building Vocabulary from Word Roots.  Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.  (Vocabulary Instruction Kit - Grades K-11)

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2013).  Starting with Prefixes and Suffixes, 2-4 (Getting to the Roots of Content-Area Vocabulary), Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing. 

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2012). Practice with Prefixes and Suffixes, 5-8 (Getting to the Roots of Content-Area Vocabulary), Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.

Connect with Dr. Tim Risinski on Twitter @timrasinski1

Email Dr. Tim Rasinski: trasinsk@kent.edu

The Robb Review Recommends!

Daily Word Ladders by Timothy Rasinski is available at: https://shop.scholastic.com/teachers-ecommerce/teacher/search-results.html?search=1&prefilter=&text=daily%20word%20ladders

The Megabook of Fluency is available at: https://shop.scholastic.com/teachers-ecommerce/teacher/search-results.html?search=1&prefilter=&text=rasinski

The Fluent Reader can be found at: https://shop.scholastic.com/teachers-ecommerce/teacher/search-results.html?search=1&prefilter=&text=rasinski

Resources for Building Students' Vocabulary and Word Knowledge are available at: https://timrasinski.com/products.html

The post A Little Latin (and Greek), and a Whole Lot of English Building Vocabulary with Word Roots appeared first on The Robb Review Blog.

Evan Robb: Distinguished Principal, TEDx Speaker, Author, and Horace Mann Educator of The Year Recipient

Bring Evan Robb to your next event.

Find out more information, including fees and availability.