Many years ago, while contemplating how best to teach vocabulary to seventh and eighth graders, I was oddly reminded of the proverb, “Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day; teach a person to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.” As a middle school student, how I loathed being made to memorize vocabulary lists, which I would forget within a few days of taking the test. I had to think better, as a teacher, of ways to make words interesting and exciting for my students to study. What might I do to get these young adolescents to appreciate language for a lifetime, not just to retain, momentarily, that which they learned? It then occurred to me: I needed to get to the root of the matter…literally, and it was through Greek and Latin roots!
You may rightfully wonder how material as dry as Greek and Latin could be compelling to middle schoolers, but by combining these roots and making up and defining their own vocabulary words, students feel a power that they have mastered language, and a marvelous byproduct is that every one of them is thrilled by their own cleverness when it comes to creating words. What is also particularly relevant for this age group is that whether a student is a more literal thinker or one who has developed more abstract thought, the work is equally motivating and engaging. Take, for example, the roots derma, meaning skin, and graph, meaning write. A literal thinker might put these roots together and form the word dermagraph, defining it as “writing on skin.” A more abstract thinker might make up the very same word but define it as “a tattoo.”
A recent homework example of this difference in thought process is two students who made up the very same word, peripoli (peri meaning all around and poli meaning city). The literal thinker defined it as “around the city,” while his more abstract-thinking classmate defined hers as “a suburban neighborhood.”
By the end of eighth grade, JCDS students have committed to memory somewhere between 250 and 270 of these roots, exponentially increasing both their vocabulary and understanding of word definitions. Equally important, over time, they continue to apply their knowledge of these roots as they further encounter words previously unknown to them. Last spring, a former student let me know that he came across the word misanthropist in the vocabulary section of the SSAT. Recalling those roots studied here at JCDS, he immediately recognized “misanthropist” as a person with hatred toward humankind (mis meaning hatred of, anthro meaning human and -ist meaning one who does). With humor, he then told me, “Well, at least I know I got that one right!” And just last week, I received an email from Emma (class of 2014), presently a senior at Brandeis University applying to medical school, remarking: “I just wanted to thank you. I’m studying for the MCAT right now, and honestly the Greek and Latin root unit we did is the single most helpful lesson I’ve gotten that doesn’t relate directly to science….”
Might you be interested in discovering your own familiarity with common Greek and Latin roots? Click here to take a recent seventh grade assessment test, and let’s see how you do. This root stuff is pretty wonderful, and between you and me, one of the best things about it is that not one student has ever complained about having to do the homework; they all just love the challenge!
For more information about the seventh and eighth grade Greek and Latin roots curriculum, contact Joanne Baker, who will be delighted to “talk etymology” with you!
Joanne Baker is the seventh and eighth grade English teacher and Rosh 8th Grade at JCDS.
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