Skipping long words can be a sign of a struggling reader. How can you help a child decode such words?

One way to help children decode big words is by familiarizing children with prefixes and suffixes. English is a language which creates new words from already existing words by adding a word part—usually a single syllable—before or after the original word. If the word part is added at the beginning of a word, the word part is called a prefix. If it is added after the word part, it is called a suffix.boy choosing right root for a prefix

Prefixes usually change the meaning of a word. Un + happy creates “unhappy,” whose meaning is the opposite of “happy.” Re + view creates “review” which means to view again. Suffixes usually change the part of speech of a word, the verb tense of a word or the number of a word. Music +al changes “music,” a noun, to “musical,” an adjective. Jump + ed changes the present tense verb, “jump” to the past tense verb, “jumped.” Girl + s changes the singular, “girl,” to the plural, “girls.”

If children can recognize that a long word has a prefix or a suffix or both, they can segment that word both for pronunciation and for meaning. “Unwinding” can become un + wind + ing. “Un” means not, “wind” means coil and “ing” makes the word an action.

Children should be taught prefixes and suffixes as a separate part of reading instruction. I would start with prefixes only. One way to do this is to make a game of combining prefixes with words, sometimes called roots. (I like to use materials the child can touch, but of course, this work can be done on computer using sites such as Here’s how:

  • Find a list of commonly used prefixes. Many web sites list about one hundred such prefixes, but I would start with a shorter list of ten or twelve of the most commonly used ones, such as bi (two), dis (the opposite), il (not), im (not) in (not), mis (badly), non (not), pre (before), re (again), sub (under) and un (not).
  • Teach the child what each prefix means, giving her a word to help her remember each one, such as bicycle, disagree, illogical, improper, indirect, mispronounce, nonfat, prepay, resend, submarine, and unhappy.
  • When she knows the meaning of the prefixes, write each prefix on an index card. Write two or three familiar words which could be paired with each prefix. Shuffle both sets of cards separately. Match each prefix with a word which makes sense, and ask the child to read the word and tell what it means.
  • Or, you could choose two root words, one of which can be paired with a given prefix, and help the child determine which root works and why.
  • Later, you could create a list of the words she has created. See if she can segment the words and tell what they mean. If she can’t do some of them, repeat the activity until she can. Gradually remove the words and prefixes she knows and add new prefixes and words until she knows several dozen prefixes.

In a future blog we’ll talk about how to figure out suffixes.  Suffixes are trickier because they sometimes involve changes in spelling the original word.

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