Building Words: Spelling Review Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Building Words: Spelling Review Practice Exercises

If a big part of learning how to spell is learning what words mean, then a big part of learning what words mean is learning how words are put together. The words that make up the English language did not just spring, fully formed, from the mouths of people living in caves thousands of years ago. Although it's impossible to trace the development of language precisely, we do know that English has developed gradually over time, more by accident and chance than by design.

An extraordinary percentage of English words have roots that come from Latin or Greek words. Just as the roots of a tree give the tree a foundation, word roots establish the basic meaning of the word. Attached to the root are affixes, which can come before the root (prefixes) or after the root (suffixes).


MAKE MINE STRAWBERRY!When building an ice cream sundae, you must first decide what flavor of ice cream to use. Then you add the toppings. The ice cream determines the base flavor of the sundae, while the toppings add to or change that flavor. Some toppings, like sprinkles, just add a little extra flavor, while other toppings, like chocolate sauce, change the flavor of the entire sundae.

With words, the root is like the ice cream—it tells you what the word will be about. For example, the Latin root vis means "to see." The word vis does not exist as an English word all on its own. You can't say, "I vis a butterfly." Just as ice cream doesn't become a sundae until you add the toppings, most roots do not become words until you add the affixes.

The root vis can combine with many affixes to create many different words. If you add the suffix -ion, meaning "act or process," you get the word vision, which means "the process of seeing." You could add the suffix -ible, meaning "able to," to get the word visible, which means "able to be seen." Suffixes like -ion and -ible are similar to sprinkles on your word sundae; they don't change the meaning of the root, but they add something extra to the word's meaning.

Affixes like the prefix in- and the suffix -less are more like chocolate sauce. The prefix in- means "not." If you add the prefix in- to visible, you get the word invisible, meaning "not able to be seen." Although the root idea remains the same—to be seen—adding the prefix in- changes the entire meaning of the word.

Before we take a closer look at the different parts of words, let's try a few practice questions to see how much you already know.


Before you can start to break words into roots, prefixes, and suffixes, it helps to refresh your understanding of syllables. Syllables are letters or combinations of letters that produce a single sound. Most syllables are somewhere between one and five letters long, and every syllable must have only one vowel sound or diphthong. (Vowel sounds are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.) The word prevented, for example, has three syllables, each with only one vowel sound—pre-vent-ed. When you pronounce the word aloud, you can feel the three different breaking points in the word. In this case, each part of speech in the word gets its own syllable; pre- is the suffix, vent is the root, and -ed is the suffix.

Most roots, prefixes, and suffixes are either one or two syllables long, so breaking the word down into syllables is a good way to figure out which word part is which. It is important to remember, though, that words can have more than one prefix and suffix. For example, the word unremittingly is an adverb that means "persistently." The root of unremittingly is mit. The word has two prefixes (un- and re-) and two suffixes (-ing and -ly). Once you learn to recognize common prefixes, suffixes, and roots, you can easily take words apart to uncover their meanings.

Here are some rules to help remember where to divide syllables:

Divide between two consonants. Examples:

      com / ment
      fur / nish
      man / ner
      out / fit
      con / trol

Divide after the vowel if it has a long sound. Examples:

      de / light
      A / pril
      be / gin
      ta / ble

Divide after the consonant if the vowel has a short sound. Examples:

      gov / ern
      gath / er
      lav / ish
      Aug / ust
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