One way to learn English vocabulary: Study Latin and Greek roots

When I was in high school, studying Latin, I experienced one of those “light bulb” moments when I discovered that many of the words I used every day in English came from Latin. And I realized that if I could learn Latin words, I could increase my English vocabulary exponentially!

child looking at a unicycle, bicycle and tricycle

Even young children can increase their vocabularies if they learn Latin and Greek roots. For example, suppose a child plays the game “Uno.” The child learns quickly that “uno” means one. But so do many words that begin with uni. Uniform means one kind of clothes worn every day. Unite means everybody becomes one big group. Universe means one huge collection of stars and planets. Unicycle means a bicycle with one wheel.

Teaching children new vocabulary words using Latin roots has many advantages.

  • Many ESL children who come from Latino backgrounds already are familiar with many Latin roots and the meanings of the roots because the roots and meanings are the same or similar in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Connections to new English words are already a part of their vocabularies.
  • Instead of children learning isolated words which bear no relationship to one another, children can learn word families which are connected by a single idea. For example, “ped” in Latin means foot. Pedal, pedestrian, and pedicure all have meanings related to feet.
  • Children can combine two roots to understand some English words which don’t need to be studied separately. For example, bicycle comes from “bi” which means two and “cyclus” which means circle.
  • Certain areas of study, such as biology and mathematics, use Latin or Greek roots for basic vocabulary. Children who are fascinated by dinosaurs can look at pictures of many different kinds and notice that many names contain the root “–saurus” which means “terrible lizard.” Others have names with the root “pod” which means foot or feet.

One way to begin learning vocabulary from Latin and Greek roots is to have children study the words for numbers, from which there are so many derivations.  Duo, meaning two, has led to duet, duel, and duplicate.  Tres, meaning three, has led to triple, tricycle and triangle.  Quator, meaning four, has led to quarter, quart, and quatrain.

Online you can find many Latin and Greek root vocabulary-building websites as well as workbooks devoted to teaching vocabulary through roots. I am mystified why this way of approaching vocabulary is not used more often. I considered it a short cut way to study for the SAT!

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